Bayonet Charge was written and published in 1957 but concentrates on the battles of First World War. Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998) is known as one of the most important English poets of the 20th century. He became Poet Laureate in 1984. Hughes had spent time in the military as a mechanic before going to university but his father had served in and survived the First World War.
The poem is called Bayonet Charge and centres on the feelings of one soldier as he goes ‘over the top’ to charge towards the enemy trenches. His initial feelings of patriotism are replaced, as he charges, with an overriding sense of fear. The bayonet of the title is the knife commonly fixed to the front of a soldier’s rifle as they charged the enemy. The bayonet charges, when soldiers went over the top of their trenches and tried to gain land on the other side, were notorious for the casualties suffered during them.
Being born in 1930, the experiences of the First World War were not first-hand for Ted Hughes. He was fascinated by his father’s stories of fighting during the First World War however and so invented this impression of the thoughts and feelings of a regular foot soldier during the conflict. The feelings of patriotism and then fear are not personal but more universal.
The text is in third person giving a remoteness and reportage quality to the poem. Lines are uneven and there is much use of enjambment and caesura to create an irregular rhythm to reflect the soldier’s panic and possibly his struggle through the deep mud of the field.
The poem begins in media res (in the middle of things/action) and so is immediately gripping. It shows us the soldier’s thoughts, feelings and actions over a very short period of time. The soldier begins with feelings of pride and patriotism but these are quickly replaced with fear. The first stanza deals with him coming to his senses in the middle of the battle scene; he is ‘suddenly’ awake and running. The second stanza notes his confusion and pause in ‘bewilderment’. Time seems to stop momentarily. In the third and final stanza, he is compared to a startled hare and seems to have lost focus on all the reasons he fought in the first place. The soldier is ‘he’; he could be anyone on this, or any other, battlefield.
Ideas and Language
Hughes attempts to show the juxtaposition between the events and the surroundings as he mentions the pastoral ‘green hedge’ and the ‘yellow hare’. The pain of the soldier and his youth and inexperience are indicated by words like ‘raw’ and ‘bewilderment’.
The soldier is shown as a frightened and helpless creature in this battle. His lack of control is highlighted straight away with the phrase ‘Suddenly he awoke’. It seems as if he only comes to understand where he is and what is happening around him as the poem begins. Phrases reflecting the sounds and sights around him are used to make the scene real to use: his uniform is ‘raw-seamed’, the fields are ‘dazzled with rifle fire’ and the bullets are ‘smacking the belly out of the air’. Words like ‘bewilderment’ are used to describe his attitude.
The control of others over his actions is evidenced in his comparison to the second hand on a much bigger ‘cold clockwork’. He is at the mercy of the commands of others. When he runs, the soldier is described as ‘a man who has jumped up in the dark’, like a man just awakened and stunned with sleep.
The final stanza really highlights his terror. All the reasons for the battle: ‘King, honour, human dignity, etcetera’ are ‘dropped like luxuries’ as his body fights to get him out of the ‘blue crackling air’. The soldier has been dehumanised by his own terror at the end and is more like a weapon: ‘his terror’s touchy dynamite’.
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