Text Title: Diners
Author: John C Bird
Text Type: Poem
Date Finished: 6th of July
October 18th 1917
This was the day that my Great Grandfather Stead Teal returned to the Regimental Aid Post on a stretcher. The first two stretcher bearers that were sent out to collect him were themselves shelled and killed. Buried underneath the debris, Stead was dug out by a later stretcher party and was carried back to the post.
Diners by John C Bird is described as modern war poetry, but to me, it helped fill the gaps of what my Great Grandfather faced at Passchendaele. As a family, we are aware of the facts of his military service and like all returning war veterans, he was reluctant to pass on the horror of what he had seen in France 1917.
I had known about the Diners poem for a while but when I re-read it, it provided even more vivid images of the trenches and the unspoken words for men and boys arriving at the front not much older than me. In the first stanza the lines “A limb a torso, a tasty entrail” and “for wine they had a vintage red” gives me the image of trench rats eating the dead and dying while drinking the fresh blood from there lifeless bodies, this is really powerful and deters me from thinking that I could have handled trench life in WW1. It is scary to think that at any given time your friend, brother, or someone you had met at training camp before being shipped to the front, could die at any given moment. The irony of the rats dining well is that the men on the frontline at Passchendaele were quite often malnourished to the point of starving, and were living off food rations of the dead and dying beside them. This makes me wonder if the soldiers on the front line felt like death may be a welcome relief to there current conditions.
Diners then goes onto look at the class system during WW1, “men of breeding accepting there due” this was inherent in the United Kingdom during this time. In Stanza’s two and three Bird talks about those who were not directly involved in the frontline through lines like “in a fine house well back from the front” and “cigars in hand, they passed the port”, these people were usually politicians and retired army generals who were living a comfortable existence with good food and wine; while soldiers on the frontline were fighting for every breath. They were treating their soldiers like pawns in a game of chess, worthless objects that were used to make the hard yards then tossed aside. “Politicians dined well back in Blighty”, these politicians were completely distanced from reality insisting that the allied cause should not be doubted and that more men should sign up as fodder for the generals game of chess.
The 4th stanza reiterates that nothing changes on the front line; the politicians and generals continued to dine, while the trench rats lined up “to savour once more the human entree”, not only was this menu delicious for the rats but it was “from a menu written in blood.” This stanza shows the rats daily wait as they were served up the same meal of human sacrifice; it is hard to comprehend “the unimaginable reality” to wake up (that’s if you managed to get any sleep) and know that a large percentage of the people around you would not survive the day. But what was it for? ‘King and Country’ or the whim of Generals who were miles from the front line but yet decided whether it would be your day to get a piece of shrapnel and bullet lodged inside you, or worse, end up as a meal for the trench rats “seasoned with cordite and gas.” How could you have been possible in that situation and not think even though it was treasonous, that thousands of men have been lost, but no yards have been gained.
When Stead was evacuated to dressing and causality clearing stations with his wounds and then sitting in France for two months before being shipped back to England. Although wounded and with the possibility of not walking again, Stead might have thought that he was the lucky one like many of the wounded around him. His thoughts during this time must have been all over the place, thinking about his fiance Winnie Thompson, Eastburn House and the family farm where he grew up, John and Mary his parents, his brothers who were fighting in different regiments, and his sisters.
I often wonder what Stead’s future would have been like if had not gone with his friends to enlist, but taken up his passage to New Zealand in 1915 on the ionic. There were many possibilities, the original purpose of the trip was for Wool Buying, but with the war already underway would he have stayed in New Zealand and looked to settle there, or would his knowledge of the wool trade taken him to Australia or South Africa. As he was the second eldest brother going back to the farm and having a future there was not a reality, although we know that Stead and Winnie had known each other for years before they engaged, was there a strong enough pull in 1915 to keep him in West Yorkshire?
Diners allow me to imagine myself in a place in a time of history where three generations back members of my family had truly horrific experiences. While also giving me insight into the motivation and ruthless disregard that the politicians and generals had for those serving.
Passchendaele “in this consummate place of slaughter”
War Diary 23rd Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers 4th Tyneside Scottish
Teal S. Record of Military Service
Teal J. Personal communications 1993
New Zealand or the Army. The Decision Was His. An essay by Jane Davies