Although he detested war and had no patriotic motivation, Isaac Rosenberg enlisted in the army when the war broke out after struggling to find a job elsewhere.
He joined 12th Battalion Suffolk Regiment (a ‘Bantam’ battalion for men under 5ft 3in) after being rejected by the Royal Army Medical Corps because of his height. An “unsoldierly” soldier, Rosenberg spent much of his career being passed from one unit to another, never really fitting in.
Sent to the Somme in France in 1916, Rosenberg was on the Western Front for two years. While in the trenches he wrote several poems including Break of Day in the Trenches, considered by many to be the greatest poem to come out of the First World War.
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.
The modernity of Rosenberg’s poetic voice is plain from his very earliest work, but it is the highly distinctive poems he produced as a soldier, with their clarity of language and compassionate detachment, that are best known today.
Rosenberg was the son of Jewish Russian immigrants. He grew up in extreme poverty but was a talented poet and painter, studying at Birkbeck College and later at the Slade School of Art.
Rosenberg found army life very hard; he was bullied and victimised because of his faith, class and artistic temperament, and through his frailty and poor health he suffered real physical hardship. Despite this, he will be remembered as one of the greatest poets of the First World War.
In March 1918, Rosenberg was in the Arras sector when the German spring offensive was launched. He was killed in the early hours of 1 April 1918 while out on patrol.
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Find out more about commemorative events for the centenary and how to get involved.