Ask anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with 20th century literature about the poets and poetry of the First World War, and I can guarantee that the names ‘Rupert Brooke’, ‘Wilfred Owen’ and ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ will be mentioned at some point. All three are rightly-reknowned poets (especially Owen), but they weren’t the only ones to be creatively inspired by their war experiences. In today’s World War One post, I’ll be looking at the life and death of another Great War poet – one who came from a very different background, and whose work is still perhaps not as well-known as it should be.
Born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was the eldest son of a family of Jewish immigrants who had originally come over from Eastern Europe. When young Isaac was seven years old, his family moved to the East End of London in search of work. Settling on Cable Street, in the heart of the area’s large working-class Jewish community, the Rosenbergs found it difficult to make ends meet and Isaac, although intelligent and artistically talented, was forced to leave school at 14 in order to earn some money for the family.
He was apprenticed to an engraver, a job he apparently hated, but he was already beginning to write poetry and also started attending evening classes in art at Birkbeck College. He lost his job in 1911, but a lucky chance meeting led to his artistic talent being recognised by a patron, who agreed to fund his studies at the prestigious Slade School of Art. At the Slade, he studied alongside a number of young artists who went on to be very successful (and who also later reflected the impact of the war in their work), including Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler.
Moving in the well-connected circles associated with this creatively charged atmosphere obviously had an impact on Isaac, as he was able to get a small book of his poetry privately published in 1912. A year later, he met Edward Marsh, the editor of the influential Georgian Poetry volumes and one of the most important people on the British poetry scene at the time. This meeting seems to have been very positive as the two men corresponded right up until Rosenberg’s death.
One sunny spring afternoon earlier this year, I found myself wandering round Isleworth Cemetery. This is a fascinating and peaceful place, opened in the 1880s when the graveyard at the nearby All Saints Church became full and was closed to new burials. Among the many memorials at Isleworth is one to a member of the well-known local Pears family (the soap manufacturers), who died in the Titanic disaster of 1912.
There are also a number of memorial stones relating to the two World Wars here. These headstones are easily identifiable, all conforming to the simple and elegant design laid down by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1917. Each lists the deceased serviceman’s name, rank, age, unit and date of death, along with his regimental badge, a religious symbol and a brief inscription often chosen by the family.
As you can see from the photograph (left), William Samworth’s headstone is no different in that respect. But it was the nature of some of the details on there that really struck me. The first and most important thing was his unit. Despite having studied both World Wars in great detail, I had never encountered the Army Cyclist Corps before. I admit I was intrigued by the concept, and determined to find out more about the ACC – and about Private Samworth too…
One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany – and thus began this country’s involvement in the First World War. This, what was assumed to be ‘the war to end all wars’, soon became a ‘total war’; a conflict that killed millions of soldiers and civilians and left millions more permenantly physically or mentally scarred. Even more people worldwide, but particularly from countries across Europe, lost family, friends, lovers and homes as a result of the fighting and destruction. A whole generation was virtually wiped out by what was quite simply industrial warfare.
World War One was unquestionably one of the most significant events of the 20th century. The fact that historians are still debating its exact causes one hundred years later says a great deal about its impact on our society and others – and the fact that we are all still paying the price of this conflict (in the Middle East, for example) shows how its effects have echoed down the decades since the Armistice in 1918. It is, therefore, important to remember.
So, to commemorate this important anniversary, I’ll be publishing a number of new posts on the subject of some of the lesser known or more unusual aspects of the conflict from the British perspective. Much will be written by others about military leaders and famous battles (and there is nothing wrong with that), but I prefer to focus mainly on the war on the Home Front and the people who lived through that, with particular reference to events in London. I have some fascinating and enlightening stories to tell about the experiences of this city at war – my small tribute to the men and women who served in numerous capacities, whether they survived or died, during the four years of this terrible conflict.
Watch out for the first of these new posts later this week and more to come over the next couple of months.