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What is a Battlefield Cross?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon336054 — On May 25, 2013

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.

By croydon — On May 27, 2012

@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.

By KoiwiGal — On May 26, 2012

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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