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The War Poets: Isaac Rosenberg


Isaac Rosenberg is a published poet who was killed during the First World War.  Born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, Isaac moved with his family to London in 1897, where most of them would remain until the end of their lives. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, and it was amongst the immigrant Jewish communities of the East End that he would grow up. 

The family first settled at 47 Cable Street, all living in one room and then moved to a small house of their own in Jubilee Street. 

Isaac developed a talent for art and English literature at St Paul’s, St George’s-in-the-East, and the Baker Street Board Schools.  By 1904, his family who were never well off, could not afford to send him to school any further and he became an apprentice engraver to Carl Hentschel, in Fleet Street.

His earliest known poem is from 1905 but his first passion was art and, in 1907, he started evening art classes. In 1911, he left Hentschel's and, through the sponsorship of Mrs Herbert Cohen, was able to enrol in the Slade School of Art. His contemporaries included Mark Gertler, David Bomberg and Stanley Spencer. In 1912, his first volume of poems, 'Night and Day', was published but he still felt that it would be through art that he would make a living. He was part of the Whitechapel group and his work was exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery.

Rosenberg was physically slight and prone to illness. In 1914, after a serious chest infection, he travelled to South Africa to stay with a married sister having being told that the climate would be better for his health. He was in South Africa when the First World War was declared and he wrote ‘On Receiving News of the War’ in response.

In March 1915, he returned to the UK and published a collection of poems entitled ‘Youth’. He had expressed his dislike of war in his letters but he also found himself to be unemployed. He joined up so that his mother would receive the separation pay and was initially assigned to the 12th Suffolk Regiment, a Bantam Battalion formed of men less than 5' 3'' in height. In the spring of 1916, he was transferred to the 11th Battalion, the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL) and in June he was sent to France. His third volume of poems was published just before he went, entitled ‘Moses’.

He was not a happy soldier but the war and the conditions of war inspired some of his best work.

He was not a happy soldier but the war and the conditions of war inspired some of his best work. He sent his work home to his sister as well as maintaining a correspondence with key figures in the literary world such as Edward Marsh, Laurence Binyon and Gordon Bottomley. His trench poems ‘August 1914’, ‘Louse Hunting’, ‘Returning, we hear the larks’, ‘Dead Man's Dump’ and ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ are incredibly evocative of life on the frontline with all its brutality.

In 1918, the German’s launched a spring offensive and, on 1st April, Rosenberg was killed but his body was not found. In 1926, the remains of eleven soldiers of the KORL were discovered and buried together in Northumberland Cemetery, Fampoux. The bodies could not be individually identified, but Rosenberg was known to be among them. This cemetery was later moved and his remains were reinterred at Bailleul Road East Cemetery, St. Laurent-Blangy, near Arras where his headstone reads ‘Buried near this spot’.

His war poems were published in a single volume in 1922.  Many have commented that his style and choice of language was influenced by his Jewish identity and the world he inhabited prior to the war. He is now remembered as one of the key war poets. 

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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