Introduction 

Custom and tradition are part and parcel of our daily lives, civilian and military alike. They are very real aspects of life, yet they are rather nebulous terms. Custom and tradition are hard to define with any degree of preciseness; it is easier to say what they are not than what they are.

Custom may be said to be a long-established, continuing practice or observance, considered as an unwritten rule, and dependent for its continued reality and usage on long consent of a community. Many aspects of our social are governed or regulated by custom.

Tradition is not so much a practice, but a process of handing down, or passing from one to another, knowledge, beliefs, feelings, ways of thinking, manners or codes of behaviour, a philosophy of life or even a faith, without written instructions. Tradition employs symbolism, as it must, for human beings, save for the exceptionally articulate, find it difficult to express spiritual and abstract ideas in a few words. Long-held feelings and convictions, man has found , are much mote effectively conveyed one to another embodied in a symbolic act or a phrase long understood and accepted. How better can one express one's love of country, respect for law and institutions, consideration for one's fellow citizens, and veneration of one's heritage, than by the physical stance and attitude taken when the national flag is hoisted or lowered?

But it must also be remembered that customs and traditions are not sacrosanct for all time. Like words of the language, they are living things; they come and go. For they reflect social conditions and moral values. They mirror political innovation and technological advance. They change. As Alfred Whitehead, the philosopher, put it, societies which cannot combine reverence for their symbolism with freedom of revision must ultimately decay. It is essential that outworn sentiment be quietly retired, and it will be, for the essence of custom and tradition is that they live by consent.

The rate of rapid change in modern society has of necessity resulted in the disappearance of countless minor customs within a generation. For example, only a very few years ago, no commissioned officers would be seen in civilian clothes without a hat. How else would he give or return a salute without lifting his hat? But the trade of the hatter, like that of the milliner, has to a large degree disappeared. Again, he would not be seen in uniform camouflaged with burgeoning bags of groceries. But with the arrival of the supermarket, the discouragement of goods delivery, and the mass entry of wives into the outside working world, there is no practical alternative. Similarly, there was a time not too long ago when few commissioned officers would be seen riding a bicycle into barrack or dockyard, but wartime shortages of fuel and transportation soon changed the picture.

Some changes in customs in the Canadian Forces came about through the legislated unification of the Services. To many, it seems strange to see seagoing officers and men wearing moustaches contrary to the custom long held by the royal navies but fully in line with army and air force tradition. Yet the time-honoured naval hand salute, with the back of the hand visible, now applies to land and air personnel.

On a more serious note, one recalls the story of the mutiny in HMS Bounty in 1789, the eventual courts martial, and the anguished scene as the young midshipman learned his awful fate when he saw his dirk on the table pointing towards him. Right up to the unification of the Services in 1968 a regulation of the Royal Canadian Navy read:

If the Accused is an officer and has been found guilty, the Officer of the Court will, prior to the court reopening, have turned the Accused's sword towards him.Footnote 1

Another custom that is not long gone was the auctioning of a deceased man's belongings and the paying of prices away beyond the value of the goods by his comrades in arms. This was an effort to cushion the financial blow to the man's wife and children before the days of Service pensions.

Perhaps people are more honest today. In any event, the coloured strand called the Rogue's Yarn once laid into naval cordage, to discourage theft and fencing, has disappeared, as has the Broad Arrow which marked the king's stores from the time of Henry VIII until 1949 in Canada, almost four centuries.Footnote 2

Sometimes, words describing a custom remain part of the language, long after the custom itself has disappeared, for example, "drummed out." One of the last times that a soldier was tried, found guilty, and "drummed out" of the regiment to the tune of "The Rogue's March" and suffered the indignity of being booted out the barrack gate by the youngest drummer, was in 1867.Footnote 3

Similarly, though the term "cashiering" is still fairly well-known, this ignominious form of dismissal of an officer has seldom been practised in recent years. An interesting case of such a sentence being inflicted was that of an officer of the 64th Regiment of Foot found guilty of drunkenness while responsible for prisoners of war at Melville Island, in the North-west Arm of Halifax harbour in 1813.Footnote 4

Then there are those customs that start out in a more or less frivolous way, become firmly entrenched for a time, then quietly fade away. An example is the top button of the uniform jacket. During the Second World War, in the Royal Canadian Air Force, to leave the top button not done up was the mark of the fighter pilot. In a corvette or a frigate of the Royal Canadian Navy with perhaps six or seven lieutenants borne, including the captain, the top button of the naval officer's monkey jacket, left unsecured, identified "No. 1," the first lieutenant, that is, the executive officer or second-in-command. A very popular custom in the informal atmosphere of war, the unsecured top button could not stand up to the "good order and discipline" of peacetime.

On quite a different plane, it is unfortunate that in the minds of some outside the Service, there is confusion regarding military tradition. From time to time "the military mind" is castigated, and it is said that military people are hidebound, unbending traditionalists who look at defence problems today in terms of how the last war was fought. Such critics confuse and compound two quite separate areas of thought and endeavour.

No one in his right mind is going to be a party to strategic concepts, tactical thinking, or operational procedures that have no place in modern times. But this should not be confused with the traditional military appreciation of the solid value of the qualities we call patriotism, dedication, loyalty, honour, courage, and the resultant pride in one's unit and pride in the Service. Footnote 5An eminent naval historian has said it most aptly:

The planes, torpedoes, bombs and mines of the Navy may be likened to mushrooms in the meadow of its long story: but Tradition – what is expected of it and what it expects of itself – is a full-grown oak tree, still in its prime, still planted squarely in the middle of the field.Footnote 6

Canadians in the past learned to their sorrow that sometimes a people must stand and fight for the principles they cherish. Essential characteristics of a military force charged with the defence of a people are the standards of training, the levels of discipline, and the quality of leadership, which together constitute professional competence. The goal, then, is to prepare the sailor, soldier and airman to face with confidence and spirit the stresses and demands of modern warfare. But there is one more ingredient in the mix that produces the first-class fighting man. It is morale. As Field Marshal Montgomery has said, the morale of the soldier is the most important single factor in war.

A Serviceman does, indeed , "march to a different drum." To succeed in action he must have courage and the mental and physical toughness essential to endurance. His training must give him the necessary skills, and confidence in his weapons. He must believe in his leaders, have trust in his comrades, and know what he is fighting for. His self-discipline must be such that he can and will obey orders implicitly under the most trying conditions, yet do so with imagination and resourcefulness, and if need be with independence. No matter how sophisticated the vehicle or the weapon, it is the spiritual wellbeing and professional competence of the individual fighting man that determines the decisive force in battle.

The history of our forces over the years gives ample confirmation that custom and tradition make a strong contribution to the building of high morale and sense of purpose by fostering that pride in the Service and in themselves that has so often inspired Canadians to press on in adversity and win through to victory.

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: