The Blue Max

The Pour le Mérite was first founded in 1740 by Friedrich the Great, but the award actually dates back to the German state of Brandenburg when in 1667 the Ordre de la Generosite (the Order of Generosity) was created by Friedrich Wilhelm I. At first, the Order was both a civilian and military honor but in January of 1810, King Friedrich Wilhelm III decreed that the award could be presented only to acting military personnel. The Pour le Mérite is correctly called an “order,” not a “medal” or “decoration.” In March, 1813, Friedrich Wilhelm III added an additional distinction in honor of his deceased wife, the much beloved Queen Luise: a spray of gilt oak leaves attached above the cross for extraordinary achievement in battle, and this was usually reserved for high-ranking officers.

The Pour le Mérite gained international fame during World War One when its most famous recipients were the pilots of the German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte). In aerial warfare, a fighter pilot was initially entitled to the award upon downing eight enemy aircraft. Aces Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann were the first airmen to receive the award. Because of Immelmann’s wide reputation, the Pour le Mérite became known as the Blue Max. The Pour le Merite and all other imperial orders were abolished with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication on November 9, 1918, however a civil class of the award was re-introduced in February 1922.

Max Immelmann: “Der Adler von Lille” (The Eagle of Lille)

Immelmann. Below: Wreckage of his Fokker E.III being guarded by Feldgendarmerie

Max Immelmann was born in Dresden, the son of a factory owner. He studied mechanical engineering in Dresden and later joined the Eisenbahnregiment Berlin. When World War One broke out, Immelmann was called to active service and transferred to the Luftstreitkräfte. He was sent for pilot training in November, 1914. By 1915, he became one of the first German fighter pilots as he quickly built a record of impressive air victories.

Immelmann was the first pilot to be awarded the Pour le Mérite, and it was presented by Kaiser Wilhelm II in January, 1916. Immelmann was credited with 15 victories. Max Immelmann will forever be associated with the Fokker Eindecker, Germany’s first fighter aircraft. There is an aerobatic maneuver named in his honor called the “Immelmann.” Immelmann was killed in combat on June 18, 1916. His body was recovered from the twisted wreckage but 25-year-old Immelmann could only be identified because he had his initials “MI” embroidered on his handkerchief.

Oswald Boelcke and Erwin Böhme

Oswald Bolecke was born in Argentina where his father was a school teacher, but by 1891, the Boelcke family had returned to Halle, Germany. He was an ambitious, studious and athletic youth who excelled at mathematics and physics. Patriotic to the core, at age thirteen, Boelcke wrote directly to Kaiser Wilhelm for an appointment to military school. His career in the military was outstanding. Shortly after being decorated with the Pour le Mérite, Boelcke rescued a French schoolboy from drowning in a canal, a feat for which he was awarded the French Life Saving Medal.

Boelcke and his pilots only flew in large, well-organized formations nicknamed “circuses.” Allied planes coming within their section of the sky were doomed. Boelcke’s own score grew to 40, although his personal record was of no consequence to him. As was the case with Manfred von Richthofen, Boelcke expressed compassion for the enemy and had grave reservations about the war.

Oswald Boelcke (1891-1916) was one of the youngest men to be appointed Captain (Hauptman) and the first fighter pilot to be awarded the Pour le Merite. Boelcke pioneered air combat tactics and is considered the “Father of Air Fighting Tactics,” many of which are still in use today. An exceptional leader, when he was given command of his own squadron, one of the new pilots he chose was Manfred von Richthofen. Boelcke flew the first Fokker E.I, commanded Jasta 2 and mentored many other younger German fliers despite his own young age. He was an extremely well-respected man, even by the enemy. He often spent his free time in the hospital visiting pilots he had downed.

Erwin Böhme was an athlete, a talented ice skater and skier, a champion swimmer and a mountain climber. He loved adventure and made his way to German East Africa, where he began working in 1910. When he returned to Europe in 1914 at age 36, he was greeted by the outbreak of war. He had once served in the Potsdam Guards and he returned to serve with them. He soon after entered into pilot’s training despite his age. By May, 1916, Böhme had flown numerous defensive patrols, as well as bombing missions and he was promoted to Leutnant der Reserve (lieutenant of reserves).Böhme was transferred to the command of Oswald Boelcke (the younger brother of his former commander) with whose fate his own would be forever intertwined. They were close friends.

Under Boelcke’s guidance, Böhme excelled as a fighter pilot. On October 28, 1916, Boelcke was leading a formation, his sixth sortie of the day, accompanied by Von Richthofen and Boehme. As they maneuvered against the enemy in a dogfight, Boehme’s plane collided with Boelcke’s, slicing the upper-wing struts of Boelcke’s Albatros. Instantly, the wing folded up and the plane dove into the ground. Boelcke made a relatively soft landing which seemed survivable, but he had failed to properly strap on his lap belt and it did not restrain him, and he never wore a helmet when he flew. Minutes later, his lifeless body was pulled from his smashed plane.

The victor of 40 aerial engagements was dead from this tragic accident at age 25. Boehme was devastated by Boelcke’s death, and was discovered in his quarters with his pistol in his hand. Manfred von Richthofen had to talk him out of suicide. That same evening, a British flier dropped a wreath stating “To the Memory of Captain Boelcke, our Brave and Chivalrous Opponent. From, the English Royal Flying Corps.” Even British POW’s at Osnabrück sent a card of respect to Boelcke’s funeral, and as with the death of von Richthofen and other aces, these somber events were regarded with sadness, shock and mutual respect by both sides who must have often wondered why they were supposed to be killing one another. Although the war lasted two more years, only 11 other German pilots were able to meet or exceed Boelcke’s score.

Böhme returned to duty with a vengeance. He went on to shoot down 24 Allied planes and to receive the Pour le Mérite himself. He would survive another year, month, and day. He was wounded in the arm, in his hand and lost his trigger finger. November 29, 1917 was his last mission. He was hit by the British and after his charred body was recovered from the wreckage, he was buried with full military honors by the British. Because he had fallen behind their trench-lines, he was interred at the Keerselaarhock Cemetery, to be re-interred at Hinter den Linden after the war. The location of his grave has since been destroyed.

The Red Baron’s Little Brother

Another notable ace is Lothar-Siegfried Freiherr von Richthofen (1894–1922), younger brother of Manfred von Richthofen, who was credited with 40 victories. He joined the Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) in late 1915. He was one of the most combat efficient and prolific flying aces of the war, perhaps even more so than his brother. Of his total of 40 confirmed victories, Lothar scored 33 in just 3 months: he had 15 kills in April 1917, 8 in May 1917, and 10 in August 1918. After the war, Lothar married, had two children and divoced. He then became a commercial pilot. He was killed in peacetime in a plane crash on July 4, 1922 caused by engine failure.

Above: Lothar, left. Manfred, right. Below: Sebastian Festner (d. 1917); Karl-Emil Schäfer (d. 1917); Manfred von Richthofen (d. 1918); Lothar von Richthofen (d. 1922); Kurt Wolff (d. 1917)