More Mess Customs 

It is a characteristic of men and women everywhere that symbolism is used from day to day to convey idTeas and feelings that cannot be expressed otherwise except in the time consuming spoken or written word. Thus it is that friendliness is expressed in the simple handshake, reverence or respect in the bowed head. As in civilian life, the observer sees these symbolic acts, however inconspicuous, in the home that is the mess. A member, entering the mess, is a good example.

In many messes, for example le Régiment de Hull, a member pauses very briefly at the door and comes to attention before entering. Sometimes, as in the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, such symbolism represents what might be called regimental spirit, something akin to the feeling one gets when the toast "To the Regiment" is made — a moment of reflection and respect for those who have gone before. Or take the messes of the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment, of Thunder Bay, or le 62e Régiment d'Artillerie de Campagne, of Shawinigan, where the custom is a simple mark of respect for Her Majesty the Queen. In others, for example the 48th Highlanders of Canada, Toronto it is a mark of honour for the colours encased in glass in the anteroom, another expression of pride in the unit in which one serves.

A custom similar in feeling and meaning is to be seen in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders and the Royal Westminster Regiment, where the colours are uncased and displayed at every mess dinner.

The toasts which follow the Loyal Toast after the meal is over afford an opportunity to honour units within the Commonwealth with which regiments of the Canadian Forces are allied. A reminder of this in the Royal Montreal Regiment is the figure in sterling silver of a mid-eighteenth century boy drummer which always stands before the commanding officer when the regiment dines. The statuette was presented a half century ago by the unit's new ally, the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales' Own).

The shared glass of port is a tradition which through the years has contributed on formal occasions so much to the feeling of mutual respect which is so important to the sense of well-being amongst the several elements of a unit. In the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise's), and many other units, there is a long tradition of the commanding officer sharing a cup with the bandmaster and the cook in a spirit of goodwill and common purpose.

Typical is the Piper's Toast proposed at mess dinners of the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary's) of Victoria by the pipe-major, with the response by the commanding officer. This little sidelight reflects the ancient Scottish relationship between the clan piper and the clan chief. It is symbolic of the prestige of the pipe-major within the regiment. In the Canadian Scottish, he pipes himself around the table and comes to a halt facing the commanding officer. The latter rises and each takes up a quaich or quaigh (from the Gaelic cuach — a kind of shallow drinking cup usually made of wood, sometimes of silver). Each holds up his quaich while the pipe-major recites the mottoes of the famed 16th Battalion of the First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force, and the other battalions which are perpetuated by the Canadian Scottish. This done, they both drain the quaich at one draught, turn it upside down and kiss the bottom of the quaich to show that the contents have been entirely consumed.Footnote 1

In the Royal New Brunswick Regiment, they have what they call "The Passing of the Quaich," right after the toast to Her Majesty. The commanding officer invites the bandmaster and the pipe-major to the table and passes the quaich first to the pipe-major who proposes the toast to the regiment in Gaelic. He takes a draught and returns the quaich to the commanding officer who responds. Then the quaich is passed, being replenished from time to time, to the bandmaster, the senior guest and each member of the mess in turn. The last officer sees to it that the quaich is properly drained and turns it upside down to prove it.Footnote 2

On occasion, the Scottish quaich plays a part at mess dinners of air command bases. A lone piper, in this event, leads the members into the dining room, marching round the perimeter until all the diners have found their places. Later, he may play during the passing of the port in preparation for the Loyal Toast. Then comes the Piper's Toast, a bit of ceremony very much like that of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa and many other Scottish regiments.

The piper, leaving his pipes in the ante-room, enters the dining area, marches round the perimeter, halts and faces the base commander and salutes. The base commander rises to greet the piper while a tray bearing two silver quaichs is brought forward. As the president raps his gavel for silence, the piper raises his quaich and gives the ancient Gaelic toast:

Slàinte mhath (pronounced Slawn-cha Vah') meaning "Good Health to You."

To which the Commander replies:

Slàinte (pronounced Slawn-cha) meaning "Good Health."

Having drained the scotch whiskey from their quaichs in one draught, they are returned to the tray and the piper salutes the base commander, turns smartly about and marches briskly out of the room.Footnote 3

Typical of the rich variety of mess customs observed with enthusiasm in the militia regiments are those of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. Dating back to when the regiment's forbear, the 49th Battalion, took its pipe band to France in the First World War, the honorary colonel of the regiment is to this day piped to dinner in the mess. And all new officers who have joined since the last mess dinner are presented to the honorary colonel at the mess table and with him drink a toast to the regiment.

In the messes of armoured regiments, there are often reminders of their cavalry origin. When the PMC of the British Columbia Dragoons demands silence at the table in preparation for the Loyal Toast, it is not the gavel, but the riding crop, with which he raps the table-top. The riding crop used was originally owned by an officer of the regiment killed on active service in Kashmir in 1950.

The Royal Canadian Hussars, Montreal, are also very proud of their cavalry background. It is a tradition at dinner that after the Loyal Toast the commanding officer declares a ten-minute interval to "water the horse." The "last parade" of the Hussar's regimental dinner is a memorable event called "The Ride" and is presided over by a senior officer who served in pre-Second World War days when the regiment was horsed. At the orders "prepare to mount" and "mount," all members place their index fingers on the table. At "walk march," the fingers are raised and brought sharply down in rhythmic slow time. Through "trot," "canter," "gallop" and "charge" one can imagine the rising crescendo (and hilarity) as the finger tips are drummed as rapidly as possible, followed by the reverse process and the welcome order to "make much of your horses."Footnote 4

On a more sombre note is the traditional toast to fallen comrades, usually observed in silence but in some messes accompanied by the plaintive, yet poignant, music of the lament played by a lone piper.

In the 48th Highlanders of Canada this is a very moving scene. When the toast, "fallen comrades," is proposed, the members remain seated and the piper plays the lament, "Flowers of the Forest," after which the members drink the toast in silence with the commanding officer drinking from a silver chalice. The last lines of the old ballad convey the sorrow after the battle long ago just as they do today:

The Flowers of the Forest that fought aye the forernost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.

We'll hae nae mair liltin' at the ewe milkin',

Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighin' and moanin' on ilka green loanin',
The Flowers of the Forest are a'wede away.Footnote 5

Perhaps the most colourful customs in mess life are those traditionally observed in Scottish regiments. One such custom is the proposing of a toast with "highland honours."

The Calgary Highlanders wear a special shoulder badge bearing an oak leaf and acorn awarded for the famous counter-attack by the regiment, as the 10th Battalion, CEF, in the Battle of St. Julien near Ypres in 1915, during the first German assault using gas. It was in a stand of oak trees known as Kitchener's Wood, hence the design of the badge. Ever since, the toast to the regiment has been to "The Glorious Memory of the Twenty-second of April," with full highland honours.Footnote 6

In the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, Winnipeg, the giving of highland honours is almost exclusively reserved for the "dining out" of the commanding officer on relinquishing the command of the regiment.

When the 48th Highlanders of Canada, Toronto, dine in the mess, each company of the regiment is honoured in the course of the dinner by the band playing each company's march and by a toast with highland honours.

To those unacquainted with the toast proposed with highland honours the ritual gives a glimpse of the lively night scene long ago in the clan chiefs great hall by torch-light. Today, highland honours in the mess of the Toronto Scottish Regiment is described thus:

... all members stand with the left foot on the chair, right foot on the table, face the portrait of the colonel-in-chief (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) and, after the Piper's tune, drink the toast.Footnote 7

Another tradition of Scottish dining is the "Piping of the Haggis." A revered dish of great antiquity, the haggis consists of the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep or calf, chopped up with suet, onions and oatmeal, seasoned and boiled in a sheep's stomach. The parade of the haggis, which after the ceremony is served as a side-dish with the main course, is carried out in different ways in different messes, usually immediately after the grace.

Two junior subalterns leave the table and meet the piper in the ante-room. The haggis is carried on a board having two handles on each end designed to rest on the young officers' shoulders. Led by the piper, the haggis bearers are followed by the officer designated to make the address, the whole party being piped around the entire mess, eventually coming to the centre of the mess table where the steaming haggis is brought to rest. It is at this point that Robert Burns' time-honoured address, "To a Haggis" is recited:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin race!

Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But if ye wish her gratefu' pray'r,
Gie her a Haggis!Footnote 8

There follows the ceremonial slicing of the stomach-bag using the Scottish officer's dagger, the dirk.

The West Nova Scotia Regiment enjoys a tradition of more than twenty years in the "Parade of the Stag's Head." It seems that originally, this parade was carried out the day after a buck was shot when the unmounted head was presented to the first lady mayor of Kentville. Ever since, when dining in the mess, an antlered deer's head mounted on a tray of wood is brought to the mess table in symbolic memory of earlier regiments absorbed, and in gratitude for the abundance of food produced in Nova Scotia.

Immediately preceding the main course, the stag's head, surrounded with food is paraded to the music of "Floral Dance" on the shoulders of four subalterns led by the adjutant. This officer presents the stag's head to the commanding officer with a brief address featuring a dubious use of the language of heraldry:

Sir: Nova Scotia being the recognized province of plenty, I present to you a stag's head, emblematically denoting meat which is the main food of our province [The Land], flanked by lobsters which are rampant in the sea around us [The Lunenburg Regiment (1870)], and surrounded by dormant apples, denoting the sweeter dishes [The Annapolis Regiment (1869)]; all of which makes us truly thankful for our rich heritage.

To which the commanding officer replies: "Which we are honoured to defend. On with the feast."Footnote 9

An interesting custom in several messes is the ancient one of passing the snuff, particularly in Scottish regiments. Traditionally the snuff is contained in a silver snuff box or mull recessed in the skull between the homs of a handsomely mounted ram's head, known in the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders as "His Lordship."

In the Toronto Scottish Regiment, the toasts completed, the PMC stands and calls: Mr. Snuff. The subaltern delegated retires to the ante-room where he picks up the regimental snuff mull, and re-enters the dining room. The piper pipes him to the mess table where he offers snuff to the commanding officer, then to all members and guests. He then returns to the commanding officer who rises and offers snuff to Mr. Snuff. Retrieving the ram's head, the subaltern is piped out to the ante-room.Footnote 10

Service in Normandy during the Second World War brought new customs to several Canadian units. One such practice that has matured into a highly cherished tradition is the proposing of particular toasts in calvados, the Norman drink distilled from the apples for which that district of France is so well known. In le Régiment de Maisonneuve, the toast to the regiment is always in calvados, as it is in le Régiment de la Chaudière.

In another Montreal regiment, there is a curious yet strongly held belief that calvados makes un trou (a hole) in the stomach, and that somehow this assists the second part of the meal to be more easily consumed. This is why it is that part way through the main course the commanding officer traditionally rises and proposes the long anticipated toast "Trou Normand" and the calvados is downed in one draught, just as the 17th Duke of York's Royal Canadian Hussars were wont to do some thirty odd years ago on the battlefields of Normandy.Footnote 11

Over the years, colourful traditions have grown up which reflect the culture of the region from which the unit has sprung. This is particularly so amongst French-speaking regiments. An example of this is the wearing of the many-hued sash and tuque of the habitant over mess dress when dining in the mess of les Fusiliers Mont-Roya1.Footnote 12

Similarly, to be present at a mess dinner of le Régiment du Saguenay is to see observances which have come down from the native Indians of the Lac Saint-Jean country, and from the early French settlers in the valley of the Saguenay.

Immediately after the toast to the Queen, there commences the colourful ritual of the peace pipe's "la touche de l'amitié" or the "puff of friendship."

It all begins when all members, their right hands over their mouths, make the wild, five-second Indian cry. The PMC at once breaks into the ancient Indian folk-song "Ani Couni, Ani Cou na," members joining enthusiastically in the chorus.

Then commences the ritual of the peace pipe, when two previously designated officers rise and, with arms crossed at shoulder level, proceed to the fire cauldron. Standing face to face they don feathered bonnets and raise their right hands above their heads in the traditional Indian greeting of peace. Going to their knees the two simulate digging a hole and bury the "war hatchet" or tomahawk beneath the bearskin rug.

Then seated on the bearskins with legs crossed, the two chiefs, facing each other across the fiery cauldron, take up the pipe of peace, fill it with tobacco and light it with a twig of cedar. Each then takes a "puff of friendship."

The two chiefs rise, and, intime with the song, still being lustily sung, pass the pipe from guest to guest. The puffing completed, the chiefs return to the cauldron, empty the pipe and ceremoniously place their bonnets on the bearskins.

The second custom much enjoyed by the mess members is la lampée de caribou which might be called "The Swig of Caribou." Caribou is a cup of welcome of long tradition in the province of Quebec. It is a fiery drink of fortified wine. As the members voice "La Marche du Régiment du Saguenay," two officers approach the jug of caribou and put on their woollen tuques. The jug is carried around the mess table enabling each guest to have his swig of caribou. Then all together they drink to the health of the regiment and utter the long "ahh" of satisfaction reminiscent of the very expressive belch of the nomad of the desert after feasting on mutton.Footnote 13

Another set of customs with a regional quality about them are observed with zest in Cape Breton Island, specifically at Canadian Forces Station Sydney. lndeed, there is something reminiscent of Champlain's L'Ordre du Bon Temps in the founding in 1956 of the unofficial, but very real, Royal Cape Breton Air Force. Not that Sydney, Nova Scotia, is isolated as is many a radar station, but it is considered by the station's people to be off the beaten track of military traffic, hence the establishment of the very successful RCBAF some twenty years ago, a concept which has enhanced mess life markedly.

At dinner, mess dress includes the colourful bow tie fashioned in the Cape Breton tartan. The Loyal Toast is followed by another in special rum with all due solemnity, and with one foot on the table highland fashion: "Chimo — the RCBAF!" — all in keeping with the spirited, if impolite, motto of the mess Nil Illegitimus Carborundum.

In lieu of the usual farewell mug to a departing member, is the presentation of a sword for the defence, intime of crisis, of the homeland which, naturally, is Cape Breton. It is said that no visiting officers are allowed into associate membership unless they demonstrate the ability to write decent reports about the station, and the rank of honorary marshal of the RCBAF is bestowed only on those with fifteen years continuous duty at CFS Sydney!Footnote 14

A tradition widely observed is air force messes in a singular antipathy towards speeches in the mess. But there is an exception, and that is when a member is about to be re-appointed out of the squadron or base and he is asked "to say a few words." Before he is allowed to utter a word, he is suffered to endure a rendering by the mess of the following rollicking ditty, "The Chug-a-Lug-Song." When the line, "So drink chug-a-lug" is reached the speaker is required to drink the contents of his specially prepared glass in a single draught and turn the glass upside down over his head to prove "mission completed."

Here's to ... ,
He's true blue,
He's a drunkard,
Through and through,
He's a drunkard,
So they say,
Tried to go to Heaven,
But he went the Other Way,
So drink chug-a-lug,
Drink chug-a-lug etc.Footnote 15

Dining in the mess is a formal occasion, but the high jinks, fun and games which often follow the concluding of the dinner are anything but formal. The arrangements for entertainment are often left to the younger, high-spirited members of the mess, and they seldom fail to come up with activities of a lively kind. The game described here has been chosen because it illustrates the boisterous nature of these affairs, and also because it has enjoyed a long popularity in all branches of the Service. It is called "Greasing the Gun."

The long mess table is tilted by supports placed under the legs of one end to form a polished, inclined plane. Chesterfield cushions are spread out on the floor at the lower end of the table. The "volunteer" is placed face down on a blanket on the table top. The gun's crew on either side grasp the blanket edge, and, in accordance with the rhythmic orders of the "NCO" — "one — two — fire!," slide the victim back and forth to gain momentum. On the order "fire," they release their grasp and the victim is propelled at a considerable rate of knots off into mid-air and the inevitable crash to follow.

But the point is, that, before being launched, the "projectile" has a match and match-book in hand, and if he fails to ignite the match while in flight, a misfire is declared, and the fun commences all over again.

The base officers' mess at CFB Petawawa is located on an eminence with a fine view of the Ottawa River and the Laurentians. Just outside the entrance is a venerable red oak tree with great spreading boughs. It is known as the "drinking tree" or "subaltern's tree."

It has often been said that on certain evening occasions, subalterns stationed at Petawawa climb the subaltern's tree and seated out on the spreading boughs, champagne in hand, render wondrous songs on the night air, and such goings-on are duly recorded in the drinking tree log-book.

As the mess, formerly the gunner's mess, is an old temporary building, and has been slated for demolition, fears have been held that the subaltern's tree might also become a victim of the bulldozer. But, ever resourceful, the young officers have assured their beloved tree a considerable degree of Life expectancy.

There on the trunk is a highly polished brass plate designating the spot as an official bench mark of the Dominion of Canada, and therefore sacrosanct: elevation, 507.3 feet; latitude 45° 55'12" north; Longitude 77° 17'23" west.Footnote 16

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: