Dining in the Mess 

The uniquely military institution, the mess, has always had the connotation of the taking of food at table in a congenial atmosphere. One of the difficulties of the novice in understanding this aspect of mess life is the variety of terms used in connection with mess dining. We are not concerned here with the snack-bar facilities provided in some messes, but rather with properly served meals.

Normally, in a unit's or ship's mess, breakfast and luncheon are informal meals. In wartime, generally speaking, the evening meal is of the same category, properly served to mess members who are properly dressed in accordance with the mess rules, but still, informal.Footnote 1

In the navy this evening meal, served without formality, where members may come or go as they see fit, is called supper. In home ports, or large ports elsewhere, normally supper is served in the mess. In large ships, where dinner in the evening is daily routine, an early supper is also served for those who for any reason, including duty, cannot dine. In small ships, supper is the norm and more formal dining is arranged periodically as circumstances afloat permit.Footnote 2 The Royal Air Force has used the word "supper" in this sense since its inception and there was a similar tradition in the former Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.Footnote 3

Mess dining, on the other hand, means that there is a degree of formality, or ritual, governed by customs which have proven their worth over the years, together with rules developed by the mess, both of which contribute so much to the sense of satisfaction of good fellowship and good dining.

While different terms are used in different messes ("different ships, different long splices!"), mess dining can be broken down into three categories — dining in, mixed formal dinner (for want of a better term), and the mess dinner. The word "formal" is really redundant in this context because all military dining enjoys a degree of formality. Also, in reading various unit standing orders, many variations of terminology were found for these three types of mess dining. Because messes differ so widely in terms of size, location, amenities and historical background, the wide variety of protocol and custom in mess dining in the Canadian Forces serves to enrich military life.

A dining-in is less formal than attending a mess dinner, but it is a parade, ensuring the attendance of all members unless there is just cause. In some messes, this kind of dinner is used to welcome new members and to say farewell to those leaving the unit. In the navy, it is called "dining in the mess" and is normal routine in large ships. In the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, there is what is called ordinary guest night, which may be a dining-in once a week for living-in officers only, attired in dinner jackets, or may be a more formal regimental guest night, say once a month, where mess dress is the order of the day.

A mixed formal dinner is a dinner in the mess to which lady guests have been invited. (It is an awkward term, for the dinner by mess definition is formal, but then an impression of the courses being mixed would be undesirable, too.) Procedure for this type of dinner is that of a normal mess dinner except that members escort into the dining room the lady seated next to him according to the seating plan, not his wife or lady guest. Also, the lady guests leave the table when smoking commences and proceed to another room for coffee and liqueurs. As often occurs, protocol does differ, and a member is well advised to know beforehand the customs of the mess. For example, CFP 195 (Military Knowledge Manual) states one should seek out and escort the lady to be seated on one's left, while various regimental standing orders say it is the lady on the right. One can readily imagine the foul-up scene!

The high point of mess life is, of course, the mess dinner. One has only to participate in a well conducted mess dinner to appreciate how over a period of two centuries a whole series of customs, usages and rituals have been fashioned into a work of art which is a pleasure to the eye and a challenge to the mind, as well as a delight to the palate. Mess dinners are intended to be happy "family" occasions, not doleful, stuffed-shirt affairs. Rather uniquely, they allow for camaraderie in a setting governed by formal rules of conduct. Juniors and seniors meet in the mess on a footing of social equality, though not professional equality, and in the mess, it being the home of living-in officers, the good manners of ordinary home life, such as respect and deference to one's seniors, are very much alive. The mess dinner affords the opportunity for all members, of whatever rank and responsibility, to meet on a friendly but formal occasion.

Like a dining-in, a mess dinner is a parade; all members are expected to attend. Basically, it is a dinner for the members of the mess alone, although, upon occasion, guests of the mess may be invited. Some messes set aside particular mess dinners as guest nights, to which both guests of the mess as well as guests of individual members may be invited. But whatever term is used to describe the occasion, the mess dinner is the most formal function held there. It is where every member is turned out in his sparkling best, and the mess plate graces the table; where punctuality, ceremonial hospitality and good manners are the order of the evening; where the traditional rituals of military dining foster good fellowship in an atmosphere of what might be called "spirited formality."

The proceedings of mess dinners vary according to unit tradition. This is particularly characteristic of army messes where dining customs have come down from individual regiment or corps practice, while naval and air force messes tend to share a single Service background. However, common to all are four stages of mess dining-assembly, the meal itself, the Loyal Toast and the conclusion.

The usual time for members to assemble in the ante-room or lounge area of the mess is 1930 hours (sailors consider the word hours superfluous when speaking of time and say simply" 1930") which allows a half hour for a friendly glass with friends before dinner. It also affords an opportunity to speak to the commanding officer or the senior officer present, and, in some messes, the president of the mess committee known as the PMC. If it is a mixed formal dinner, this is the time for each member to view the seating plan and determine which lady he is to escort to the table.

During the half-hour assembly there are sound signals or calls which inform the members the amount of time left before dinner and the time to proceed into the dining room. The number of calls and the method by which they are sounded differ from mess to mess.

In messes of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery and 1st Canadian Signal Regiment, the half-hour dress (meaning one half hour until dinner), the quarter dress and the officers' mess calls are sounded by one or more trumpeters, and at the first two of these calls, members go on chatting as if the signals had not been heard. In the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, the officers' mess call is called the "dinner horn."

At a mess dinner of the warrant officers and sergeants at CFB Kingston the three traditional warning calls, including the five-minute call, are sounded by trumpet, and then, when dinner is ready, and in recognition of the number of sailors on base and the contribution made by the ship's company of the former naval communications establishment, HMCS Gloucester, a "bo's'n of the day" pipes "hands to dinner."Footnote 4

In naval and air force messes, the senior mess steward simply informs the mess president that dinner is ready to be served and a few quiet words soon has the members heading for the dining room.

The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment has the unusual custom of the vice-president of the mess committee, "Mr. Vice," assembling all but the head table in the dining room five minutes before dinner, where the members stand behind their chairs to await the arrival of the head table officers and guests who meanwhile have been marshalled by the PMC.Footnote 5

Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, during the half-hour assembly, have two interesting events — formal reading of the dinner proclamation by the adjutant and the presentation of guests to the guest of honour.

In most messes, smoking is permitted during the assembly in the ante-room or lounge, but traditionally, in air force messes, there is no smoking during the pre-dinner assembly right through until after the Loyal Toast.

In some messes, for example those of the North Saskatchewan Regiment and the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, officers and guests are played into dinner by the commanding officer's piper leading the way. But, if a unit is fortunate enough to have a band in attendance, the old tradition of walking to the tune of "The Roast Beef of Old England" is likely to be observed.Footnote 6 This piece of music has been a popular officers' mess call for many years ashore and afloat. A captain of the Royal Navy, writing of service in HMS Leander, fifty guns, on the North American station in 1804, referred to the drum beating" 'The Roast Beef of Old England', the well-known dinner signal of the officers."Footnote 7 Interestingly enough, this call is employed to this day in ships of the United States Navy.Footnote 8

On entering the dining room, mess members proceed directly to their places, led by the president who escorts the guest of honour if there is one, although in some messes this honour goes to the commanding officer, or senior officer present. In army and air force messes, members remain standing behind their chairs until grace is said, but in naval wardrooms officers eat themselves as soon as the president has done so, after which grace is said.

If a chaplain is present, he is usually asked to say grace, if not the president does so or he may ask any member to ask the blessing. Traditionally, grace is the simple "For what we are about to receive, thank God." However, variations are permitted and are heard, but the idea that the navy's grace is the abrupt "Thank God!" is a myth and is generally discouraged when attempted. Yet, these very words — Thank God — comprise the reverently offered grace of the Royal Canadian Hussars, of Montreal.

Back to top

In the Canadian Forces, the whole matter of what officer is responsible for the conduct of the mess dinner encompasses considerable variety of tradition.

"Mr. President" ("Madam President") may be the PMC (president of the mess committee), the president of the mess, or a president for the day. In each case, he is assisted by "Mr. Vice" ("Madam Vice") (the vice-president) who may be the vice PMC or simply vice-president for the day. Very often, he is the junior member of the mess. In many regimental messes, the PMC certainly arranges the dinner and the mechanics of its smooth running, but it is the commanding officer who preside over the dinner proceedings. In the air force tradition, the president may invite the station commander to lead the way into dinner and escort the senior guest, but retain actual control of the dinner.Footnote 9 In naval messes, the picture is quite different owing to the internal organization of a ship of war and its confined spaces. The captain of one of HMC ships has his own quarters and dines alone; he is not a member of the wardroom. In a large ship, the president of the mess may be any officer appointed to that ship. In destroyers and below he is most likely to be the executive officer of the ship. At a naval mess dinner the president is in complete charge and always leads the way into dinner. The captain may attend as an invited guest or as an honorary member. Also unless it is a large dinner with a seating plan, naval officers take their seats without reference to rank.Footnote 10

The dinner itself consists of several courses with appropriate wines. Conduct throughout the meal is intended to be congenial but formal and most presidents will "nip in the bud" any attempts at horseplay or practical joking until after the conclusion of the dinner. Smoking is not permitted at table until after the Loyal Toast. Indeed, over the centuries dining rules have evolved which have proven to contribute considerably to a sense of well-being and the enjoyment of dining in the mess.

Traditionally, and in fact at the risk of sanctions, a member may not without the permission of the president, whatever his rank; come in late and sit down at the table; leave the table, or return to it after being permitted to leave; read or write; partake of a course before the president; use coarse language or tell off-colour stories; discuss or place bets; discuss political, religious or other potentially highly controversial issues; "talk shop" of other than general Service interest; mention a woman's name unless she is a member of the Service or a well known public figure; speak in a foreign language; or propose a toast on his own initiativeFootnote 11 — all of which make a mess dinner sound like a heavily circumscribed affair, which it is not. It is just that these rules, which have become customs, help to ensure good dining in an atmosphere of relaxation, moderation, courtesy and stimulating conversation.

Once the meal has been consumed, preparations are made for the Loyal Toast and the other toasts which may follow. All is cleared from the table except the port glasses. It is at this point that a curious custom is practised in the messes of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery which traditionally use runners on the table. On a signal, given as soon as the cutlery and china have been removed, the mess stewards take up position at the ends of the table. There they proceed to twist the runners, the number of turns depending on the length of the cloth. When ready, the stewards at the foot of the table pull the cloths clear of the length of the table with one swift motion.Footnote 12 The decanters of port wine (sometimes Madeira) are now placed on the mess table in readiness for the Loyal Toast.

The custom of toasting or drinking healths comes down to us from ancient times. Greeks and Romans drank to their gods and libations were poured to honour the ladies. In the course of time, "good health" became an expression of greeting. The word "toast" dates from the closing years of the Tudor period and originally was associated with the custom of drinking to the ladies. A bit of toast was placed in the wine in the belief that it improved the flavour.Footnote 13 To this day the toast remains one of the most cherished customs of mess life.

Even though in the course of a mess dinner there may be several toasts, dining in the mess today is the acme of moderation compared to that of our military ancestors. A young subaltern of the 4th Regiment of Foot in garrison at Halifax in 1788 left a record of a mess dinner honouring His Royal Highness Prince William Henry, Captain of HMS Andromeda:

We sat down twenty to a very good dinner .... After the royal toasts, and after he had given the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, we had three times twenty-one, and two bands playing 'Rule Britannia.' We drank twenty-eight-bumper [brim-full] toasts, by which time, as may be well supposed, we were in pretty good order. At nine o'clock a 'feu de joie' was fired by the garrison from the citadel. Those that could walk attended. I was one of the number that got up the hill.Footnote 14

Another glimpse of the toast of an earlier time in Canada may be seen in the journal of a French nobleman, travelling in North America at the time of the French Revolution. In the summer of 1795, he was at Kingston, Upper Canada. There he was invited to a mess dinner of the 60th Regiment of Foot in celebration of the detachment of the regiment forming the garrison being relieved by another detachment of the 60th. Le duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt reported:

The ingenuity of the English in devising toasts, which are to be honoured with bumpers, is well known .... Unwilling to oppose the general will, which becomes more imperious in proportion as heads grow warmer, you resort to slight deceptions in the quantity you drink, in hopes thus to avert the impending catastrophe. But this time none of us, whether French or English, had carried the deception far enough, and I was concerned to feel, the remainder of the evening, that I had taken too lively a part in the event of the two detachments relieving each other.Footnote 15

As in colonial times, the Loyal Toast in Canadian Forces messes today follows the ritual of passing the port. The table cleared a decanter of port wine is placed before both Mr. President and Mr. Vice.

At this point customs differ in some messes, but, generally, the PMC removes the stopper from the decanter before him and charges his glass, as does Mr. Vice. In HMC ships however, the president unstoppers the decanter and passes it; he charges his own glass last. This is also the case in artillery messes.

In some messes, the PMC takes a sip to test the quality of the port, but this is also a relic of our suspicious ancestors who insisted, as guests, on being reassured that the wine proffered had not been poisoned.

One aspect of the passing of the port that is common to all messes, is that the decanter is always passed to the diner's left. But the manner of its passing is another matter. In most air force messes and some units, for example, the Royal Westminster Regiment and les Fusiliers du St. Laurent, the decanter as it is passed is not allowed to touch the table. In naval messes, and in regimental messes such as the Canadian Grenadier Guards the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, the matter of decanters touching the table is of no account. In the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, the custom is to set down the decanter to one's left with a light but distinct thud. On the contrary, in wardrooms, the decanter is slid along the polished tabletop from member to member (in fair weather; in heavy weather deliberately dampened linen may be employed), practices dictated no doubt by "the gentle motion of the waves" against the ship.

When the president is satisfied that all glasses have been charged with wine (or it may be water, though the sailor's superstition dies hard that the personage toasted in water will depart this life by drowning), he stoppers the decanter, raps the table for silence and says, "Mr. Vice, the Queen," in English or French. Mr. Vice alone rises and proposes the toast "Gentlemen (or Ladies and Gentlemen), The Queen of Canada," in the other official language. If a band is present, the first six bars of "God Save the Queen" are played immediately upon Mr. Vice proposing the toast, for which, of course, all members stand. All present at table then raise their glasses and reply, "the Queen."

Here, again, unit tradition is very much alive. In artillery messes it is considered improper to add the fervent "God bless her," which is the normal response in other messes, for example, officers of field rank and above in the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada.

The custom of drinking a toast to the health of the sovereign is universal in the Canadian Forces, but, as can be seen, the procedure is not uniform in all units, ships, stations and bases, and in these matters it is incumbent upon hosts to inform and assist their guests at dinner.

While the Loyal Toast is in most messes drunk standing, such is not the case in HMC ships, where the health of Her Majesty the Queen is honoured while seated. The origin of this privilege enjoyed by naval officers has been attributed to several sovereigns. But the story generally accepted is the one about King Charles II returning to England in 1660 after the Cromwellian interregnum, who, replying to the Loyal Toast, rose and struck his head on a low deckhead beam, typical of ships of the time, and declared that, henceforth, wardroom officers should drink the king's health safely seated. Some idea of the antiquity of this custom may be seen in a print published in 1793 showing King George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820, with a group of officers in the great cabin of a ship-of-the-line, glasses in hand for toasting the royal guest, and seated.Footnote 16

In this connection, the officers of CFB Halifax to this day adhere to the old Queen's Regulations for the Royal Canadian Navy (QRCN) which ordered that the health of Her Majesty the Queen shall be honoured while seated in all naval messes whether on shore or afloat, even when "God Save the Queen" is played, on all occasions except when Her Majesty or a member of the royal family is present (when the personage's pleasure as to procedure is previously sought), or when official foreign guests are present.

In addition to the Loyal Toast, depending upon circumstances and tradition, there may be other toasts at a mess dinner, including those proposed to: foreign heads of state when their official representatives are present; the colonel-in-chief; "fallen comrades"; the regiment; "the ladies," and others. In ships of war, one of these is called the Toast of the Day, and there is one for each day of the week. There may be slight differences in wording, but the substance of the daily toast has remained constant for many years:

  • Monday — Our ships at sea
  • Tuesday — Our men
  • Wednesday — Ourselves (as no one else is likely to bother)
  • Thursday — A bloody war or a sickly season (to ensure quicker promotion)
  • Friday — A willing foe and sea room
  • Saturday — Sweethearts and wives (and the usual wag's aside — May they never meet)
  • Sunday — Absent friendsFootnote 17

The date of origin of these daily wardroom toasts is not known. Those for Thursday and Friday are limited pretty well to historic interest today, though in the days of sail they expressed a real hope. A young officer writing about service on the West Indies Station at the close of the eighteenth century during the wars with Napoleon, recorded that "Their toast in a full bumper of grog [rum and water] of an evening was usually "a bloody war and a sickly season."'Footnote 18 The toast for Saturday night is of even greater vintage. The Chaplain in HMS Assistance recorded on 26 June 1675, a Saturday, while cruising in the English Channel;" And towards evening we lie on the deck, and drink healths to the King and our wives, in bowls of punch." On subsequent Saturdays in the Bay of Biscay and off the Portuguese coast, these entries were made: "We end the day and the week with drinking to our wives in punchbowls," and, again," ... and punch like [that is, as plentiful as] ditchwater; with which we conclude the day and week in drinking to the King and all that we love· while the wind blows fair."Footnote 19

Speech-making is not generally a feature of mess dinners. Indeed, in most messes, speeches are actively discouraged, and if tolerated, they must be brief. Traditionally, dining in the mess means the taking of food and drink in a congenial atmosphere with a degree of formality in which stimulating, intelligent conversation is a major feature, and not a captive audience for a speaker. However, occasionally, a guest of honour is invited to dine and to deliver an address, the subject of which is known to be of more than passing interest to the members of the mess.

A mess dinner comes to a conclusion when the commanding officer or the president, as the case may be, rises, and leaves the table, escorting the guest of honour if there is one. At this point, members are also free to leave the table.

As mentioned, dinings-in and mixed formal dinners usually conform in most respects with the format which has evolved in each mess for the mess dinner. But in army messes, there is another, the annual regimental dinner, the main feature of which is the reading by the commanding officer of his summary of the year's achievements in the regiment. The annual regimental dinner is a mess dinner but the usual order of things is altered. A good example is that of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal of Montreal. The following procedural order of the dinner reveals how one regiment of the militia conducts this much anticipated event:Footnote 20

Cocktails in the mess lounge; reading of the dinner proclamation by the adjutant; presentation of the guests to the guest of honour; parade of the head-table guests into the dining room; the Grace; a moment of silence for fallen comrades; the toast to Her Majesty the Queen; the parade of "l'allumeur"; the parade of the main course; the parade of the snuff; the CO's toast to the bandmaster; the CO's toast to the head chef; the introduction of the head-table guests; address by the guest of honour; annual report of the Commanding Officer; the toast to the Regiment; the toast to the guests; the singing of the Regimental Song: "Nous sommes les Fusiliers du Mont-Royal"; the national Anthem.

Back to top

Back to top

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: