The Mess 

The word "mess," in the Service context, conjures up different pictures for different people. It is a matter of time and place. In the Canadian Forces there are separate messes for commissioned officers, warrant officers and sergeants, and junior ranks. There are unit messes, base and station messes, and messes in HMC ships.

Derived originally from the Latin missum, the Old French word mes had the meaning of a dish, a serving of food or a course of dishes and, eventually, a serving dish holding food for four people. This, in turn, took on the connotation of a group of four who habitually sat together at table and helped themselves from the same dishes — hence a mess.

The usual definition for mess indicates the functional, practical role — the home of all those officers, men and women, who live in; the club for all serving personnel; the centre of social life on a base or station, or in a ship. Indeed, in the two hundred years we have had messes, the continuing theme common to all is that the mess is where officers and men take their food, whether they are bivouacked in the field, comfortably housed in a modern barracks, hanging on to the mess table in a ship at sea, or dining amidst the splendour of plate and crystal, good cheer and sparkling repartee, of the finest mess in the land. But the mess is more than that. There are characteristics that tend toward the abstract, and are therefore not so readily defined. The seasoned regimental sergeant major knows the value of the friendly, informal atmosphere of the unit mess where, over a period of time, the Service attitudes and professional competence of junior sergeants are slowly but surely built into something approaching the peak of perfection — far better than can be done in the class room.Footnote 1 The same kind of learning process, so essential to a professional fighting force, goes on continuously in every wardroom and every unit officers' mess ashore, where that blend of authority and mutual respect, of friendship and good-humoured sharing of experience, contributes so much to esprit de corps and pride in service. This whole concept is something unique to the military.

Since time out of memory, organized fighting forces, unless compelled to live off the land, have been provided by their masters with rations of food and water, essential as they are to survival. It is likely that messes designed for communal eating first came into being in the name of economy of time, expense and effort. The common pot or kettle was the more efficient way to prepare the soldier's stew and the sailor's lobscouse. But, no doubt, companionship had much to do with it, too. As Falconer's dictionary put it back in 1815, "Mess among seamen, implies any company of the officers or crew of a ship, who eat, drink and associate together."Footnote 2

The beginnings of organized messes in the army seem to be eighteenth century in origin. Certainly, there is a marked difference between officers' messing arrangements in the Seven Years' War and those at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. As Montcalm prepared for the defence of Quebec in the spring of 1759,  Amherst was gathering his forces at New York, and a glimpse of regimental life may be seen in the daily order book of one of his regiments, the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, under date of 14 March 1759: "Such of the Gentlemen of the Regiment as intend to mess with Mrs. Calender, the sutler, for next campaign, to give their names to the Adjutant by Monday morning. Divine Service tomorrow as usual."Footnote 3

In other words, in the forthcoming advance up the Hudson and down the Richelieu to Montreal, Amherst's officers could make their own arrangements for cooking their rations, or, for a fee, could sit down to table with other officers in the tent of Mrs. Calender one of several sutlers who customarily followed on the heels of armies in the field for the purpose of turning a profit. To indicate the advances made in the concept of messing, it is of interest to note what amounted to an elaborate mess dinner in the field during operations in the year 1812. One of Wellington's young subalterns during the Peninsular War described the tactical situation on the Tagus River in the spring of that year and a "jollification dinner" in which all officers and men of the 34th Regiment of Foot participated:

So we determined to get up a big mess dinner for the whole regiment once for all, to celebrate the battle of Albuera... We selected a pretty spot outside the town, under some cork-tree, marked out the size of our table on the green sod, and cut a trench all round. Our legs in the trench, we sat on the ground, with the table in front, but without a table-cloth. This was our arrangement.Footnote 4

In garrison, organized mess life received a real impetus when permanent barrack buildings came into vogue. Certainly, at Halifax in 1787, where there were three barrack blocks, the army officers' mess was the centre of the port's social life. The members' rations for a week, va1ued at three shillings, sixpence, were augmented by means of a levy of two dollars, to purchase extras for the table, though there were complaints from the officers of the 4th Regiment of Foot about the high cost of mutton at sixpence a pound and twenty pence a bottle for sherry and port.Footnote 5

Army officers early in the nineteenth century dined well during passage at sea, though, on occasion, their mess facilities were not as stable as when in garrison ashore. In January 1809 HMS Fisguard, frigate, was escorting a troop convoy to reinforce the British army in Spain. Brigadier-General William Dyott recorded an incident in the army officers' mess on board the Fisguard in the notorious Bay of Biscay:

In the night another gale of wind came on, and it blew extremely hard the next morning. We were sitting at breakfast in the cabin, when a wave struck the ship, and in consequence of our all clinging to the table hands and feet, the lashings gave way, and coffee, tea, ham, biscuits, generals, aide-de-camp, sailors, etc., were sprawling on the floor, paddling away in different fluids, some with a slice of ham plaistered to his cheek, others with his eye closed by a pat of butter; it was the most ridiculous scene possible.Footnote 6

Naval messes afloat are institutions of great antiquity. Emphasis has been not so much on organization, as upon actions and attitudes distilled over the years into a body of customs that have withstood the tests of time and of social and techno1ogical change. Much of what we see in ships' messes today has been dictated by space limitations in ships and by conditions imposed by the long sea passage. Indeed, in a sense, conditions which obtained in Drake's Golden Hind prevail in HMC submarines today.

The ship, in terms of the numbers of officers and men embarked and the masses of fighting equipment borne, is a relatively small vehicle. Add to this fuel, stores, the means of propulsion and the ships' capacity to keep the seas for long periods of time, and the problems of living cheek by jowl and at the same time preserving the strictest discipline essential to top fighting efficiency become readily apparent. It is these factors, which down through the centuries of seafaring have produced the customs routines and what may be called "a system of manners," that govern mess life at sea.

In the days of sail a ship-of-the-line had several decks. The seamen had their quarters, their home, on the lowerdeck, the lowest of the gun decks, where the ships heaviest guns were ranged on both sides, each with its port through which it was aimed and fired. To this day, the ratings, or other ranks as they are called now, of the ships' company are known collectively as "lowerdeck." A visit to HMS Victory at Portsmouth will reveal how these gun decks in action had an unimpeded, clear sweep the length of the ship. It was over the guns that the seaman slung his hammock and, in groups of six or eight, called a mess, sat down at a movable mess table secured between the guns.Footnote 7 One man, on a rotating basis, called the "cook of the mess," carried kettles to the galley, drew his mess's cooked rations, and divided them between his messmates. This was called "broadside" messing, a system largely discontinued in the Royal Canadian Navy in the 1950s with the arrival of new construction ships and dining hall cafeteria messing. (However, HMC submarines Ojibwa and Onondaga still have broadside messing.) Today the spaces where seamen sleep are still called "messdecks."

The naval officers' mess is called the ward room, a term in use in the Royal Navy for well over two hundred years. It has a curious derivation. In a sailing ship of war, the great cabin, which was the captain's quarters was under the quarter-deck. Below that, at the after end of the upperdeck, was what was called in the seventeenth century the ward robe, adjacent to which were the cabins of the ship's officers. This ward robe was originally a store room for items of value taken from captured ships. When empty, ships' officers off watch, would congregate there and use it as a mess, and ward robe became wardroom.Footnote 8

In a military force, no matter what the defence policy of a nation may be, the primary objective must be professional military competence, the ability and the readiness to carry out military operation of a very high standard. Such a goal requires leadership, discipline, skill, courage and equipment. But in war, and in peacetime, too, all of these are of little avail without one more ingredient — morale, or esprit de corps. Here, the mess has always had an important contribution to make, and that contribution takes several forms, some of which newcomers to the military may be quite unaware.

After the formal classroom and on-the-job training is complete, it is often in the day-to-day contacts in the mess that professional competence is honed to a fine edge. Of necessity, the military is an authoritarian form of social organization where all are subject to the same code of discipline. Yet it is the mess where that delicate balance between formality and informality promotes a healthy spirit amongst its members, seniors and juniors alike, building that sense of mutual respect and trust so necessary in a fighting force. Where men are forced to live in confined quarters, such as the wardroom of a small ship or the mess of an isolated station on land, it is the time-tested philosophy of custom and routine, of civility, good manners and good taste, a basic and lively consideration and respect for others, that encourage the healthy relationships so essential in a first-class fighting unit. Inevitably, the tone and attitudes of the mess are almost electrically reflected in those of the unit as a whole. The great British admiral, Earl St. Vincent, was very much alive to this when he wrote: "Discipline begins in the Wardroom. I dread not the seamen. It is the indiscreet conversations of the officers and their presumptuous discussions of the orders they receive that produce all our ills."Footnote 9

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