Ted Hughes and war

Helen Melody investigates how the First and Second World Wars shaped Ted Hughes's life and work.

As a child growing up in the 1930s, Ted Hughes’s childhood was overshadowed by the legacy of one war and foreshadowed by the arrival of the next. Throughout his career, Hughes wrote poems in which he reflected upon these conflicts and their impact, from The Hawk in the Rain (1957) to Wolfwatching (1989). While the impact of the First World War was particularly striking, the Second World War also affected the young Hughes, with the departure of his much loved older brother, Gerald, to the RAF keenly felt. It is interesting to note that the subject of Hughes and war is one of the less explored areas of the poet’s work. Nevertheless, war had a major impact upon Hughes’s life and work, and as Professor Dennis Walder wrote, Hughes was a ‘war poet at one remove, writing out of the impact of memory – the individual memory of his father, and the collective memory of English culture’.[1] This article includes references to some of Hughes’s published poems on the subject as well as unpublished poetry, notes and letters in the Hughes Archive held at the British Library.

‘My 1st world war nightmare’

Hughes wrote on a number of occasions about the way in which the First World War overshadowed his childhood, and of its wider impact on the Calder Valley where he spent the first eight years of his life. He explored this theme in poems such as ‘Six Young Men’ and ‘Bayonet Charge’, and wrote movingly throughout his career about the impact that the conflict had upon his parents’ generation.

Hughes’s father William (1894–1981) served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, joining up in Rochdale in September 1914 and fighting first at Gallipoli and later in France. Many of the men in the Calder Valley and across the region joined up with friends in so-called 'Pals Battalions' early in the war, and the massive casualty rates which followed decimated the communities that they had left behind. In a file of autobiographical notes and fragments at the British Library, Hughes wrote of the continuing impact that could still be felt in the 1930s:

The big, ever-present, overshadowing thing was the First World War, in which my father and my Uncles fought, and which seemed to have killed every other young man my relatives had known.[2]

Further light is shed on Hughes’s feelings about the war by a draft letter in the Archive which Hughes wrote to Geoff Moorhouse, the author of Hell’s Foundations (1992), a book about the Lancashire Fusiliers at Gallipoli. The letter (a shortened version of which was later sent to Moorhouse) provides an insight into both William Hughes’s military service and his son’s feelings about the war. Hughes’s sentiments would doubtless chime with those of others whose relatives had served in the conflict. He explained to Moorhouse that although he was close to his father he did not feel able to speak to him about the war:

I never questioned him directly. Never. I can hardly believe it now, but I didn’t. He managed to convey the horror so nakedly that it fairly tortured me when he did speak about it.[3]

While Hughes could tell Moorhouse of the family legends which surrounded his father’s military service, including his prowess as a wrestler and the fact that he received the DCM medal at Ypres in September 1918, Hughes’s reluctance to speak to his father meant that he was unable to resolve the differences between his own memories and those of his siblings about the wartime tales they remembered from childhood.

Hughes explored the impact of the First World War in a number of poems in his first poetry collection The Hawk in the Rain. ‘Six Young Men’, which was inspired by a photograph of a group on a Sunday afternoon outing on the hills above Mytholmroyd, is particularly poignant as the poet cannot escape the knowledge that none of the men were to survive the war. The fact that they were sitting in a place Hughes knew so well, links the past even more closely to the present for Hughes.[4] In other published poems, Hughes considered the different consequences of war, from the personal experience of the family frightened by their father’s nightmares in ‘For the Duration’ to the memorialising of the dead in the poems ‘Out I, II, III’.[5]

A series of unpublished notes and poems in the Hughes Archive provide further insight into the personal impact of the conflict. Although the poetry drafts are undated they appear to have been written in the 1970s and 1980s, and can be found with accompanying notes in a series of school exercise books with material relating to Remains of Elmet (1979). Interestingly, while Hughes did not feel able to talk to his father about the war, in these drafts he is often in direct conversation with him, perhaps seeking answers to the questions which he had not felt able to ask. The exercise books contain a mixture of notes (often written as an aide-memoire) and heavily worked drafts. In a similar style to the notes which he made when writing Birthday Letters, Hughes noted down events, thoughts and observations which would feed into his poetry. One such note reads:

My 1st world war nightmare – a dream lived all the time, in my father’s memory. How can one confront or come to terms with it. Like those ghosts that Gallipoli donkey etc.[6]

Manuscript drafts relating to the First World War by Ted Hughes

Manuscript drafts relating to Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes

Notes taken down by Ted Hughes while drafting poems about his father and the First World War.

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Among this material are five drafts of an unpublished poem which begins ‘We are the children of ghosts / And these are the towns of ghosts’.[7] In the poem, Hughes writes of the deep impact of the war on local communities, describing how it affected not only those who lived through the conflict (the soldiers and their families) but also the subsequent generations. For Hughes the horror of the war – the ‘First Great Shock / Of Slaughter – Beyond – Belief’ – remained decades later and subsequent drafts of the poem are entitled ‘Sixty Years On’.[8]

Manuscript drafts relating to the First World War by Ted Hughes

Manuscript drafts relating to Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes

‘We are the children of ghosts’: Early draft of the poem later entitled ‘Sixty Years On’ by Ted Hughes.

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Other poems relate more closely to William Hughes’s experience such as ‘Dad’s Music’ in which Hughes writes:

What was your music? You listened to music…
I can hear it any time I like, you said
It brought me through the war
It was always there.[9]

Manuscript drafts relating to the First World War by Ted Hughes

Manuscript drafts relating to Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes

Draft of ‘Dad’s Music’ by Ted Hughes.

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In the poem ‘Your Corns’ the young Ted shaves off his father’s corns which he describes as ‘Your souvenirs of the war’.[10] These poems illustrate the way in which Hughes used poetry to explore subjects which were sometimes too painful for him to discuss openly. One may draw parallels with the later collection Birthday Letters, in which the poems were written to Hughes’s first wife, Sylvia Plath. Although Hughes did not publish either ‘Dad’s Music’ or ‘Your Corns’, he did include a number of poems about the First World War in Wolfwatching in 1989. Wolfwatching is an interesting collection as it does not consist of a single sequence or structure but of poems on a number of themes including nature, the Calder Valley, the First World War and spirituality. In poems including ‘Source’, ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Walt’ and ‘Dust As We Are’ Hughes considers the personal consequence of the war, particularly on his own family. Meanwhile, in the poem ‘Slump Sundays’ Hughes writes of the impact on the community ‘Inside those great barns – the seed – corn / Lugged back from the Somme’.[11] It is possible that Hughes found it easier to write on this subject in later years following the death of his father in 1981.

Manuscript drafts relating to the First World War by Ted Hughes

Manuscript drafts relating to Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes

‘Your souvenirs of the war / You could only glance at’: Draft of ‘Your Corns’ by Ted Hughes.

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Poetry of the First World War

In addition to writing poetry about the First World War Hughes also wrote literary criticism on poetry of the period. The Hughes Archive includes drafts of a review by Hughes of The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen edited by Cecil Day Lewis from April 1964. In the review Hughes writes about Owen’s life and work, focussing in particular upon the way in which,

[Owen] set himself to present the sufferings of the front line, with the youth and millions of deaths and extinguished hopes of his generation behind him, as vividly and frighteningly as possible.[12]

Hughes writes of Owen’s determination that everyone in Britain should know exactly what the soldiers were facing, and of his wish that there be an understanding of and appreciation for the suffering of those fighting and dying on the battlefield. The drafts illustrate Hughes’s feelings about Owen’s work and also provide an interesting contrast between Owen’s contemporary reflections on the conflict and Hughes’s own later ones.

Manuscript draft reviews by Ted Hughes, for books on Shamanism and Wilfred Owen

Manuscript draft reviews by Ted Hughes on Shamanism and Wilfred Owen

Ted Hughes describes Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ as ‘doing the work that we might try to do today with an outraged T.V. camera’, in drafts of a review he wrote of The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (1964).

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Crosses in the sky

The Hughes Archive also contains references to the Second World War, a conflict which Hughes himself lived through. The Archive includes material relating to the war in both personal and literary terms. Gerald Hughes’s military service in the RAF meant that he was often away from the family for long periods. In an unpublished poem included in the same series of notebooks as the First World War poems, Hughes writes of his mother’s happiness when his brother returns to the family on leave. Hughes contrasts the short interwar period with the years that have passed since the end of the Second World War:

One of those days…
All that was only half the length of time
From the massacres of the Trenches
As I am now from it.[13]

Another poem in the same series of exercise books tells of Edith Hughes’s vision of the crosses hanging in the sky over Mexborough on the night before the D-Day landings. Hughes’s mother had told her children of the visions she had often had since childhood of her sister, Miriam, about whom Hughes writes in the poem ‘Anniversary’.[14] In a poem entitled ‘6th June 1944/The Crosses’ Hughes speaks to his mother as though reminding her of events which she must have told to him. He writes of how, not able to sleep, she got out of bed and went to the window where she saw flashing crosses in the night sky a sign of ‘a terrible battle’.[15] Just as his father’s nightmares of the First World War were woven into Hughes’s consciousness, so were his mother’s visions of faraway battles.

Manuscript drafts relating to the First World War by Ted Hughes

Manuscript drafts relating to Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes

Draft of ‘6th June 1944/The Crosses’ by Ted Hughes.

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Three poets of the Second World War

In addition to Wilfred Owen, Hughes’s work in the 1960s also included literary criticism of poets of the Second World War, and in particular he championed the work of the poet Keith Douglas who died in 1944 aged only 24. In a radio programme entitled ‘Life and Letters / Three Poets of the Second World War’, first broadcast in 1964, Hughes considered the poetry of three young poets who all lost their lives in the conflict: Keith Douglas, Drummond Allison and Sidney Keyes. In his introduction to the programme (of which a script can be found in the Library’s Archive) Hughes attributed the development of the term ‘war poet’ to those poets writing in the First World War who began to write about the horrors and realities of war rather than creating the overtly jingoistic verse of earlier conflicts. Hughes felt that poets of the Second World War were influenced by the previous generation, although their poetry was no longer about the injustice of the conflict but instead about one’s own chance of survival. The programme went on to look at each of the poets in turn with Hughes particularly struck by Douglas’s writing, especially the poem, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ which he described as:

one of the most unforgettable poems to come out of either war … Owen never put the pity of war more tellingly, the general helplessness and indifference of the murderers, their complicity with their victim under the huge incomprehensible necessity of the war in progress.[16]

Writing the introduction to Douglas’s Selected Poems published by Faber in 1964, Hughes again compares Douglas’s poetry with that of Owen's highlighting the different ways in which their work commented upon the wars in which they fought and the different attitudes of the times in which they lived.[17]

To conclude, Hughes’s work explores the legacy of the two world wars on different levels by considering the impact upon his family and community, as well as the effect upon literature of the period. Both published and unpublished material provide an insight into Hughes’s views on war and enable one to understand its impact and what it was like growing up during the interwar period.


[1] Dennis Walder, Ted Hughes (Milton Keynes/Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1987), p. 28.

[2] Autobiographical writing in Add MS 88918/7/1, Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[3] Letter to Geoffrey Moorhouse (8 January 1994) in Add MS 88918/7/1, Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[4] Susan Bassnett, Ted Hughes (Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers Ltd, 2009), p. 55.

[5] ‘For the Duration’ in Wolfwatching (London: Faber & Faber, 1989); ‘Out I, II, III’ in Wodwo (London: Faber & Faber, 1967).

[6] School exercise book in Add MS 88918/1/52 (f. 37r), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[7] Poetry draft in Add MS 88918/1/52 (f. 52r–v), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[8] ‘Sixty Years On’ in Add MS 88918/1/52 (f. 55r–v), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[9] ‘Dad’s Music’ in Add MS 88918/1/52 (f. 85r–v), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[10] ‘Your Corns’ in Add MS 88918/1/52 (f. 9r–v), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[11] ‘Slump Sundays’ in Ted Hughes Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 750.

[12] Draft review of The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen in Add MS 88918/6/2, Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[13] Poetry draft in Add MS 88918/1/52 (ff. 12r–13r), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[14] ‘Anniversary’ is part of ‘Uncollected 1992–97’ in Ted Hughes Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 2003), p. 854.

[15] ‘6th June 1944/The Crosses’ in Add MS 88918/1/52 (f. 11r–v), Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[16] “Life and Letters” 'Three Poets of the Second World War' in Add MS 88918/5/1, Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

[17] Introduction to the Selected Poems of Keith Douglas in Add MS 88918/6/4, Edward James Hughes Papers, British Library.

  • Helen Melody
  • Helen is the Lead Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative archives at the British Library. She joined the British Library in 2008 and has worked with a number of different literary and theatrical collections at the Library including the archives and manuscripts of Ted Hughes, W.H. Auden, the Brontës, Angela Carter, Laurie Lee Wilfred Owen and Edward Upward.

    Helen was one of the curators of the Library’s 2015 ‘Alice in Wonderland’ exhibition and was also a judge for the Off the Map videogame competition which in 2015 was Alice themed.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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