A battlefield cross is a makeshift memorial to a fallen or missing soldier. Built from the soldier’s inverted rifle, bayonet, boots and helmet, it’s not exactly a cross. Nor is it meant to mark an actual grave, since casualties are usually transported home for burial. On or close to the spot where the soldier died in action, the instant sculpture honours their ultimate sacrifice, and provides comrades with an immediate ritual by which they can begin to make sense of their loss.
As an American military tattoo, the battlefield cross motif has, for many, become a permanent memorial to loss and mourning. Also known as the ‘soldier’s cross’ or the ‘fallen soldier’s cross’, it has become a much more dramatic icon of loss than an image of a flag-draped coffin. Which is just as well, since the Pentagon has a media ban on photographing the arrival of coffins containing a soldier’s remains.
The traditional battlefield cross is comprised of a rifle pointing downward, sometimes with the bayonet stuck in the earth, signifying that the battle (for him) is over. On the rifle’s stock hangs the helmet, and perhaps the dog tags, while his upright boots form the base of this powerful memorial. We also see versions with the rifle nose-down in a heap of sandbags or mound of earth, reminiscent of Christ’s cross on Calvary.
Although the elements and design of the battlefield cross presents little mystery, the origins may go all the way back to the American Civil War. It was during this time that the remains of fallen soldiers were repatriated for the first time. Bodies on the battlefield had first to be marked, and what better manner than by driving the muzzle of the soldier’s gun into the earth, capped by the helmet. In subsequent military campaigns, the paying of respects to a fallen comrade at his ‘cross’ approximates a military honour, unofficial though it may be. Military brass came to encourage these battlefield memorial services in lieu of funeral rites. By the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the battlefield cross was becoming fully established as an American military tradition.
At Tattoo World in Fayetteville, N.C., you can see a battlefield cross design that dates back to 1992.