Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1918, the war poet Lance Corporal Isaac Rosenberg, 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Royal Regiment, was killed by a German raiding party while on dawn patrol in the town of Fampoux, north-east of Arras, during the German spring offensive.
The son of Jewish Russian immigrant parents, he grew up in extreme poverty, and as a young child he dreamt of being a poet and a painter – he spent two years as an apprentice engraver before his talents took him to Birkbeck College and the Slade School of Art.
He enlisted in the army in October of 1915, unable to find satisfactory work – he was not a man of patriotic fervour, and wrote in a personal letter: "I never joined the army for patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify war. I suppose we must all fight to get the trouble over." After being rejected by the Royal Army Medical Corps because of his height, he joined the 12th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, which was a bantam battalion for men under 5’3” tall. He had turned down the offer to apply for a commission, preferring to serve as a lance-corporal, and found himself transferred several times over the next two years. He has been referred to as “an incompetent soldier, much too untidy and absent-minded to satisfy his superiors…constantly in trouble and found the physical hardships almost unbearable.” His health was poor, compounded by chronic bronchitis from which he had suffered for many years. However, it was during this time that he produced what is considered his finest work.
He wrote to fellow artist and poet Laurence Binyon: "I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on." He arrived on the Somme in 1916, and spent two years on the Western Front, writing the poems that would make him one of the greatest poets of the Great War. His most famous is included below.
Isaac, from Bristol, was 27 years old.
Break Of Day In The Trenches
The darkness crumbles away. It is the same old druid Time as ever, Only a live thing leaps my hand, A queer sardonic rat, As I pull the parapet's poppy To stick behind my ear. Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew Your cosmopolitan sympathies. Now you have touched this English hand You will do the same to a German Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure To cross the sleeping green between. It seems you inwardly grin as you pass Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, Less chanced than you for life, Bonds to the whims of murder, Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, The torn fields of France. What do you see in our eyes At the shrieking iron and flame Hurled through still heavens? What quaver – what heart aghast? Poppies whose roots are in man's veins Drop, and are ever dropping; But mine in my ear is safe – Just a little white with the dust.