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What is a Battlefield Cross?

The Battlefield Cross is a poignant military memorial, symbolizing honor and sacrifice. Composed of a soldier's boots, rifle, helmet, and dog tags, it marks the spot where a warrior has fallen, serving as a makeshift tribute during combat when a traditional funeral isn't possible. It's a powerful emblem of remembrance and respect. How does this tradition resonate with you?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A battlefield cross, or fallen soldier battle cross, is a memorial to a fallen or missing soldier, consisting of the soldier's boots, bayonet, helmet, rifle, and sometimes dog tags. As the name implies, it is generally erected at or near the field of battle, allowing the soldier's comrades to pay their respects and to begin to process the loss. Among the military, the image has become quite iconic, and it appears in military tattoos and sculptures as a motif that is meant to symbolize loss and mourning for fallen comrades.

The cross is made by standing the soldier's boots upright, perching the rifle upright in the boots, and hanging the helmet from the rifle's upright stock. If dog tags are included, they are typically draped from the rifle. Other tokens and mementos may be added by comrades, symbolizing inside jokes and other moments of friendship with the deceased.

A battlefield cross consists of a fallen soldier's boots, helmet, dog tags, bayonet, and rifle.
A battlefield cross consists of a fallen soldier's boots, helmet, dog tags, bayonet, and rifle.

The origins of the battlefield cross appear to lie in the American Civil War, and they are a bit grisly. Until this period, fallen soldiers were buried where they fell, sometimes by opposing forces, with crude markers being erected and sometimes later replaced. In the Civil War, however, soldiers began to be sent home for burial, so after a battle was over, people would move through the battlefield to mark the bodies that needed to be removed; the most convenient marker would have been the soldier's rifle with his helmet balanced on top, and over time, this image came to be associated with military loss.

The battlefield cross originated during the American Civil War.
The battlefield cross originated during the American Civil War.

During the Second Gulf War, the battlefield cross began to attract popular attention, with many units erecting them to commemorate their comrades. Since they could not attend the funerals of their fellows, some units made a habit of paying their respects at the site where the soldier fell, and photographers following the war captured iconic images that were widely reprinted in the United States. Since the Pentagon generally does not permit the publication of images of flag-draped coffins, these photos have come to be used as a poignant reminder of the cost of war.

Although it is not an official military honor, many higher-ranking members of the military have recognized the value of this type of memorial, encouraging members of their units to memorialize fallen comrades and sometimes holding ceremonies at the site. After a set period of time, the memorial may be respectfully dismantled, with the components being returned to the government for appropriate disposition.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the significance of a Battlefield Cross?

The Battlefield Cross holds deep significance as a memorial symbol for soldiers who have fallen in combat. It represents the respect and mourning of the comrades-in-arms for their lost fellow soldier. The arrangement typically consists of the soldier's rifle with bayonet stuck into the ground, boots placed at the base, and the helmet on top. This poignant symbol serves as a makeshift memorial for the deceased, honoring their sacrifice and providing closure to their comrades before the body can be returned home.

How did the tradition of the Battlefield Cross originate?

The tradition of the Battlefield Cross dates back to the American Civil War, where it emerged as a practical way to mark the bodies of fallen soldiers for retrieval. Over time, it evolved into a ceremonial symbol of honor and remembrance. During the Civil War, the items used in the cross helped identify the dead and their units. Today, it stands as a tribute during battlefield memorial services and has become an iconic representation of loss and respect within the military community.

Where is the Battlefield Cross typically displayed?

The Battlefield Cross is typically displayed on the battlefield or at a forward operating base where a service member has fallen. It is erected as a temporary memorial until the soldier can be properly laid to rest. Additionally, replicas of the Battlefield Cross are often used in military funerals, memorial services, and at various monuments to honor the memory of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, serving as a powerful reminder of the cost of war.

Is the Battlefield Cross used by military forces other than the United States?

While the Battlefield Cross is most closely associated with the United States military, similar traditions exist in other armed forces around the world. Each military has its own customs for honoring fallen soldiers, but the concept of creating a memorial on the battlefield to honor those who have died in combat is a universal practice that transcends national boundaries, reflecting the shared experience of loss and remembrance in military communities globally.

Can civilians create a Battlefield Cross to honor fallen soldiers?

Civilians can create a Battlefield Cross to honor fallen soldiers as a form of tribute and remembrance. It is not uncommon for families, veteran organizations, and communities to erect a Battlefield Cross during memorial events, on significant days of remembrance like Memorial Day, or at permanent installations in cemeteries and parks. These civilian tributes echo the military tradition and serve as a public expression of gratitude and respect for those who have served and sacrificed.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon336054

The Fallen Soldier's Battle Cross: The helmet and identification tags signify the fallen soldier. The inverted rifle with bayonet signals a time for prayer, a break in the action to pay tribute to our comrade. The combat boots represent the final march of the last battle. The Fallen Soldier Battle Cross, Battlefield Cross or Battle Cross is a symbolic replacement of a cross on the battlefield or at the base camp for a soldier who has been killed.

croydon

@KoiwiGal - Well, actually when I read the words battle field cross I immediately thought about those temporary (or in some cases, permanent) crosses that they often use for the Unknown Soldier, or as a placeholder for a memorial. There are several places you can see fields of those crosses, which have been set up to show how many soldiers died in battle at a particular place, when the bodies of the men in question might have been buried in different places, or might never have been taken from a mass grave.

Whenever we have a remembrance day for soldiers, we set up some of those white crosses around a war memorial as a representative of those who have died, and as a place for people to hang wreathes of flowers.

I've never heard that it could be applied to the practice of putting the boots together in the place where a solider died to mark it. It really breaks my heart that this had to be such a common practice.

KoiwiGal

The battlefield cross sounds similar in intention to the crosses that are erected for people sometimes after a car accident.

You can see them on the side of the road, usually just a simple white cross, but people put little mementos to their lost loved one there, like silk flowers or toy windmills.

The sadder ones have a teddy bear or some other toy and you know it was a child who died in the accident.

They are particularly useful because they also warn people that that particularly stretch of road can be tricky and that they should take extra care.

But, they give an extra place for people to go and feel like they are with the person who died, particularly if that person had to be buried far away. And the crosses look almost identical to the crosses they use for temporary placement of soldiers, before they get their permanent memorials.

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    • A battlefield cross consists of a fallen soldier's boots, helmet, dog tags, bayonet, and rifle.
      By: Smulsky
      A battlefield cross consists of a fallen soldier's boots, helmet, dog tags, bayonet, and rifle.
    • The battlefield cross originated during the American Civil War.
      By: macropixel
      The battlefield cross originated during the American Civil War.