The origins of the Battlefield Cross or Battle Cross are a little vague, but appear to lie in the American Civil War and they are a bit grisly. Until this period, fallen soldiers were buried where they lay, often by opposing forces, with crude markers being erected and sometimes replaced. However, during the Civil War soldiers began to be sent home for burial or buried in an area designed to be a cemetery near the recent battlefield. After a battle was over, people would move through the battlefield to mark the bodies which needed to be recovered and the most convenient marker would have been a soldier’s rifle with its bayonet stuck into the ground with his hat placed on top.
During World War II, as units rapidly advanced, Soldiers and Marines would often bury the bodies of their fallen comrades in shallow graves. Once again placing a rifle with bayonet fixed into the ground and a helmet on top to indicate that here lies the remains of an American fighting man. Later, Graves Registration Units would follow through and recover the remains for proper identification and burial. Over time, this image came to be associated with military loss.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the battlefield cross began to attract popular attention, with numerous units erecting Battle Crosses to commemorate their comrades. Since they could not attend the funerals of their fellow soldiers, some units made a habit of paying tribute at the Battlefield Cross and photographers following the war captured some of these iconic images, which were widely reprinted in the United States. The Pentagon does not typically permit the publication of images of flag-draped coffins, but now the Battlefield Cross has come to be used as a poignant reminder of the cost of war.
Although the Battlefield Cross itself is not an official military honor, it does play a part in the memorial ceremony as a visible reminder of the fallen soldier. Many unit commanders have recognized the value of the memorial, encouraging members of their units to pay their respects to fallen comrades and sometimes holding ceremonies at the site of a Battle Cross memorial.
The helmet and identification tags signify the fallen soldier, their name never to be forgotten. The inverted rifle with bayonet signals a time for prayer, a break in the action to pay tribute to our friend. The combat boots, worn and dirty, represents the final march of the soldier