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.