THE COMPLETE BLUE MAX – Review by Mark Barnes

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THE COMPLETE BLUE MAX
A Chronological Record of the Holders of the Pour le Mérite, Prussia’s Highest Military Order from 1740 to 1918.
By Kevin Brazier
Published by Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 84884 86 0

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

There is no question that the Pour le Mérite is most closely associated with German aviators of the Great War. But this excellent directory by Kevin Brazier explains that the honour had been around almost two centuries before the advent of military aviation and had been awarded in large numbers to the great and the good, both civil and military; and not always to the bravest of souls. I was amazed to see the numbers handed out in the climactic years of the Napoleonic Wars when it appears to have been doled out quite freely to favourites of the Prussian court. There seems to have been no hard and fast criteria for how it could be awarded and many seem to have been dished out as compliments to titled characters from within Prussia and other German states and a good number to foreign aristocrats. The first Briton to receive the medal was a Colonel Charles Gordon in June, 1790. I’ve trawled through the web but can’t find out anything about him. One wonders what Maria Leopold Franz d’Assisi of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies did to earn the award in 1861 other than lose his throne to the people setting out to unify Italy. Perhaps it was a consolation prize? 4,743 were awarded prior to the Great War and over 600 more during it. Like all imperial honours it was abolished on the 9th of November, 1918 with the abdication of Kaiser Bill.

The list of recipients up to the Great War is a veritable who’s who of German society and you will recognise some of these names as the ancestors of important military men of both the Kaiserreich and the Third Reich. Other famous names begin to appear as well and one of these is a tough officer of mountain troops, Oberleutnant Erwin Rommel, who received his medal on the 10th of December, 1917.  I was surprised to learn the medal could be awarded more than once, with the recipient receiving Oak Leaves in the manner we are familiar with the Knights Cross in World War II. One of these dual recipients was the undefeated Oberst Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck, leader of the heroic German force fighting in East Africa. One of the greatest soldiers of the war; admired by friend and foe alike, he was awarded the Blue Max in November, 1916 and received the Oak Leaves a little less than a year later. Vorbeck has a mixed life after the war but one of the highlights must have been when he personally told Adolf Hitler to go eff himself when offered a Nazi sponsored post. You can’t help but warm to him.

The Pour le Mérite mit eichenlaub seems like a small prize for some of its recipients when others were getting the medal for less than heroic reasons. But it is the airmen who stand out as the stars of the medal roll and the majority of Mr Brazier’s book is rightly devoted to them. I tried to construct this review without reference to the famous movie featuring the fictitious Bruno Stachel and his quest for the Blue Max. But, lets be honest; it is impossible not to think of it despite the imperfections, while I apologise for not having read the original books. The film is set at the time when a pilot needed twenty kills to receive the award, when prior to that others had got the medal for a smaller number of victories. The famous Max Immelmann achieved seventeen victories while Franz Walz had scored only seven when he got his. The heart of this book is a series of biographies of the fighter pilots who received the medal – all the names we’ve come to know – plus many more. There is a list of Blue Max winning men associated with aviation who scored no victories at all and one of these was Hans-Georg Horn who flew over 300 reconnaissance flights as an observer. A welcome bonus is the inclusion of biographies of men who qualified for the medal with twenty victories and never received it. The Blue Max was not awarded posthumously and nor was it given to other ranks, disqualifying a fair number. The Kaiser’s abdication cancelled out the need to award many of the others although at least one of them wore the medal anyway! Who can blame him?

 

The Complete Blue Max joins Kevin Brazier’s previous volumes on the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. While I don’t know the VC book I can attest this volume is superb and can only hope he continues with looks at other specific awards. There is a lot of wonderful information here and it is one of those books you can read as and when you like. The book is worth it for the biographies of the aviators alone, but, there is much more to it. In fact I’d have liked to have seen a bit more of this with the other aviators included. But you can’t have everything and I am not actually complaining. This one is a pearl for any reference library and I’m sure I’ll be using it again and again.

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