In this blog I am going to commence a discussion about the Military Maria Theresia Order (Militär-Maria-Theresien-Orden). This order, I think, can reasonably be described as one of the premier awards for bravery and exceptional military accomplishment. Within Austria and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was revered. The recipients of this award were universally recognized as heroes of the empire and the recipients of the 1st class of the award are a who’s who of the Austrian military elite.
Some background and a little history
I think it is reasonable to say, as seems appropriate for a famous award for bravery, that the Military Maria Theresia Order was forged in the fire of two wars. Maria Theresia (I am using the Austrian spelling of her name) who founded the order assumed the throne in 1740. She was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last Habsburg ruler. Her father Holy Roman Emperor Charles the VI (Figure 1) realized that if a woman was to assume the throne in Austria regardless of her legitimacy she would be vulnerable to attack by other sovereign powers because she would not conform to the tenants of Salic Law. Therefore in 1713 he promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction, an edict that legitimized the ascension of a woman to the throne of the Arch duchy of Austria. When Maria Theresia (Figure 3) was born in 1717 she became subject to this edict. It took Charles VI ten years to assure the agreement of all of the major European powers to the Pragmatic Sanction. He then felt that he had assured Maria Theresia’s assumption of the Austrian throne.
However in 1740 when Charles VI died and Maria Theresia assumed the throne the nations who had agreed to honor the Pragmatic Sanction, led by King Frederick II of Prussia reneged on that agreement which resulted in the first of the two wars that forged the Military Maria Theresia Order, namely the War of the Austrian Succession. This war which lasted eight years ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The treaty confirmed Archduchess Maria Theresia as the ruler of the Habsburg dominions but cost Austria Silesia (which went to Prussia) and some of its territory in Italy (which went to Spain). As a result of this war Maria Theresia developed a deep appreciation for the loyalty and bravery of her army which had assured her place on the Austrian throne.
The loss of Silesia and a sense of betrayal by their European neighbors led Austria to participate in the second war that served to forge the Military Maria Theresia Order: the Seven Years War, which took place from 1755-1764. It was during this war that the Archduchess of Austria (Figure 4) and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire (Figure: 5) established the Military Maria Theresia Order. On June 18, 1757 Austria was victorious at the Battle of Kolin. This victory was momentous in that it was the greatest defeat ever suffered by King Frederick the Great of Prussia who had betrayed Maria Theresia’s father in 1740 and it had saved the Austrian Empire from being overrun by Prussian troops. Maria Theresia had by this time developed an even deeper appreciation of army and its leaders including her husband. Thus on the very day of the victory of Kolin she announced the creation of the Military Maria Theresia Order Figures 1, 6 and 7).
The Military Maria Theresia Order: an overview
Date Issued: As stated above Empress Maria Theresa founded this order on June 18, 1757 and authorized the first awards to be issued on June 22, 1757. The order continued to be issued for services rendered in WWI until October 3, 1931.
Reason Issued: The order was issued to honor commissioned officers who exhibited valor and exceptional bravery in combat or in the case of the grand cross, those who made extraordinary decisions which resulted in an important military outcome. When Maria Theresia announced the creation of the award she also said that it would be granted based on heroism and military accomplishment without regard to social status or rank. In taking this position she established a principle that merit and merit alone would be the basis for the issuance this order.
In practice the Military Maria Theresia Order grand cross and later the commander cross were only issued to Austrian and later Austro-Hungarian officers of noble birth or significant status and to foreign Royalty or high ranking allied officers. The knight cross on the other hand was issued strictly for merit and did adhere to the principles that Maria Theresia had outlined. Thus in some ways the receipt of the knight cross was a greater honor as regards heroism than the receipt of the grand cross or commander cross which might be the result of merit or of rank and privilege or both.
The Military Maria Theresia Order by statute, adopted in 1758, was limited to serving officers in the Austrian or later Austro-Hungarian armed forces. Thus by statute the Order could not awarded to foreigners. This statute, in practice, was ignored when the Austrian ruler wished to award the bravery or military competence of allied officers or rulers. This was not a frequent occurrence. When awards were granted to foreigners, grand crosses and commander crosses were awarded to royalty and high ranking officers of allied nations and knights badges for extraordinary heroism in combat in a theater of war in which the Austrians were participating or in direct collaboration with Austrian or later Austro-Hungarian forces. For example, among the recipients of the Order was the Russian Emperor Alexander I, German Emperor Wilhelm II, German Field Marshall Von Moltke, Russian Prince Bagration and the British Duke of Wellington, as well as some other famous generals.
Classes or Types: This order was issued in three classes: Grand Cross, Commander, and Knight. The order came in two classes until 1765 when a new class, that of Commander was introduced by Emperor Joseph II.
The class of this order, which was received, was often determined by the status of the recipient.
- Grand Cross with star: (1757-1918) awarded to Generals commanding armies for winning a battle or campaign
- Commander: (1765-1918) awarded to Generals and members of the General Staff
- Knight (1757-1931) awarded to any officer for outstanding acts of bravery.
Potential recipients of this award had to personally request that they be considered to receive it. There are known instances in which deserving officers refused to submit the request. I assume because they either did not, as many other heroes, believe they deserved the award or they found it embarrassing to have to request consideration to receive it.
The awards were officially presented at a ceremony known as a “Promotion”. There were 195 of these ceremonies. The 1st Promotion occurred on the 7th of March 1758 and the last on the 3rd of October 1931. During World War I Promotions Number 171 on the 27th August 1914 to Promotion Number 185 on the 2nd October 1918 took place. A further ten Promotions were enacted after the war granting awards retroactively for war service.
Count Leopold Daun (Figure 8) was the first recipient of the grand cross which was awarded for his victory at Kolin. I think it is noteworthy that although Maria Theresia had indicated that the award was to be granted solely on merit the first award was to a Count and Field Marshal. Also in this first group of recipients was her husband the Archduke and Holy Roman Emperor Franz I.
The Knight’s Cross was awarded in 1800 to 8 British officers who had distinguished themselves at Villiers-en-Couche in 1794.
This award was given to the Duke of Wellington in 1814 (Figure 9)
There were 52 persons who received the order of the Golden Fleece and some class of the Order of Maria Theresia.
There were nine officers who received all three classes of this award during their military career.
- Feldmarschall Joseph Freiherr von Alvinczi de Berberek, Knight 1779, Commander 1793, Grand Cross 1794 (Figure 10)
- Feldzeugmeister Johann Peter Freiherr von Beaulieu de Marconnay, Knight 1760, Commander 1790, Grand Cross 1794(Figure 11)
- Feldmarschall Joseph Johann Graf Ferraris, Knight 1758, Commander 1793, Grand Cross 1793 (Figure 12)
- Feldzeugmeister Friedrich Wilhelm Furst Hohenlohe-Kirchberg, Knight 1760, Commander 1789, Grand Cross 1792 (Figure 13)
- Feldzeugmeister Maximilian Graf Baillet de Latour, Knight 1790, Commander 1794, Grand Cross 1809 (Figure 14)
- Feldmarschall Johann Joseph Furst Liechtenstein, Knight 1790, Commander 1796, Grand Cross 1799 (Figure 15)
- Feldmarschall Carl Clemens Pellegrini, Knight 1757, Commander 1765, Grand Cross 1789
- Feldmarschall Josef Graf Radetzky von Radetz, Knight 1799, Commander 1809, Grand Cross 1848 (figure 16)
- . Feldmarschall Karl Schwarzenberg, Knight 1794, Commander 1805, and Grand Cross 1813
Two persons received the Maria Theresa Order and the German Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. They were Oberleutnant Friedrich Franek and Oberleutnant Alois Windisch.
The Grand Master of the order was always the Emperor of Austria. Kaiser Franz I (the husband of Maria Theresia was the first Grand Master of the order in 1758. This was because women could not be by statute be the Grand Master of the award.
The Grand Cross of this order and the Order of the Golden Fleece were always worn by the Emperor when in military uniform except when he was in Hungary. When in the Kingdom of Hungary the Emperor wore the Order of St. Stephan instead of the Order of Maria Theresia.
Grand Cross holders were raised to the rank of Baron of Austria and Baronet of Hungary and were ennobled.
Holders of this award were allowed to place the insignia on their coat of arms.
Recipients of the award were granted an annual pension as follows:
- Grand Cross recipients = 1,500 gulden, after 1878, 3,000 gulden and after 1910 6,000 krona
- Commanders = 600 gulden, after 1810, 800 gulden, after 1878, 1,500 gulden and after 1910, 4,000 krona.
- Knights = 400 gulden, after 1810, 600 gulden, after 1878, 800 gulden and after 1910, 2,400 krona
The award was to be returned to the order chancellery upon the death of the recipient (foreign recipients were exempted from this rule). However the recipient was, with the permission of the Order, allowed to have insignia made that could be retained by the family.
The award could be made posthumously as in the case of Feldmarschall Boroevic von Bojna in 1931(Figure 20)
In 1944 the Hungarian Regent, Nikolaus Horthy von Nagybanya (figure 21) issued one knights cross of the order under his dubious authority to Generalmajor Ladislaus Oszlanyi
Feldmarschall Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna (Figure 20) is the only person to receive a higher grade of the order (Commander) before receiving the lower grade (Knight).
Fregattenleutnant Gottfried Freiherr von Banfield was the only WWI ace to receive this award. He received the knights cross in 1917. He was also the last living recipient of the order, dying in 1986. His death extinguished the order
The Military Maria Theresia Order was exempted from the rules requiring insignia to be made using base metals in 1917. Thus even during WWI when precious metals were being carefully rationed the order continued to be made of gold and silver.
Note: the great majority of Military Maria Theresia awards being offered for sale are copies of various qualities. Issued awards are very rare and this is reflected in their prices. Knights badges have sold in recent times for between $25,000 and $35,000. Genuine commander and grand cross insignia almost never comes on the market.
In future blogs I will explore the insignia in depth but on this occasion I wanted to establish the history and unique aspects of the award a precursor to a numismatic discussion of the awards themselves. I hope you have found this interesting and I invite your comments or questions.