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Remembrance Day 2014: Break of Day in the Trenches

1st Cameronians tea in trenches.

The 1st Cameronians at a frosty dawn in the trenches, making early morning tea. 18th November 1914. Houplines Sector, France. (c) IWM Q51531

On the first Remembrance Day of the Centenary, Isaac Rosenberg’s acclaimed poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is set alongside images of troops at dawn during the First World War. A moment of quiet and reflection, before the business of the day began, for troops from the fields of France to the deserts of Egypt and Palestine.

Isaac Rosenberg, from the impoverished East-End of London and of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, had gone to war as a private soldier primarily to provide his mother with the separation allowance – a payment given to soldiers’ families due to the loss of income of them going to war. Determined to continue with his poetry, with mentors and patrons including traditionalist Edward Marsh and modernist Ezra Pound, he wrote to Laurence Binyon in Autumn 1916,

‘I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right. . .’

Rosenberg was killed on patrol in the early hours of 1 April 1918. He was featured in IWM London’s exhibition In Memoriam, that ran for a year from September 2008. Information from the exhibition and much of Rosenberg’s poetry is held in the Museum’s collections.     

 Isaac Rosenberg, 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.

Dawn silhouette

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette. A long line of British reserve troops standing silhouetted against the dawn near Thiepval, France, 15th September 1916.(c) IWM Q1209

An officer of 2/7th Middlesex at his morning ablutions, despite shortage of water; Es Sollum, April 1916.in the Camp at Es Sollum, April 1916. (C) IWM Q15714

The images chosen from the Museum’s collections were found by searching for ‘Dawn’ and ‘Morning’. Interrogating the catalogue in this way, placing the objects, words and images of the Museum in conversation with cultural material proves a rewarding and moving method of thinking about the war and remembrance.

Isaac Rosenberg’s poem will be performed alongside other writings and songs at ‘Terrible Beauty: Music and Writing of the First World War’ in the Chapel, at King’s College, London as part of the HERA project ‘Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict’ of which IWM is a partner. Organised by Santanu Das, the event coincides with the British Academy conference First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity, and it is supported additionally by the Centre for Modern Literature and Culture, King’s College London and the British Academy.

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