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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.
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.
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.