The Salute 

The salute is as old as history itself, for, essentially, it is at once a greeting and a mark of respect, and, as such, long pre-dates organized military forces. In whatever stratum of society, the characteristic that marks a gentleman or a lady is the respect he or she shows towards superiors subordinates and peers alike. One way in which members of the Canadian Forces show such respect is in the pride and smartness with which they salute or pay compliments, a mark of good manners indispensable to Service discipline.

Like many other customs, saluting has something dynamic about it. Whether by hand, gun or ensign, it is full of life. Outward appearances change from time to time, but the symbolism, the feeling or message conveyed, remains constant. An eighteenth century author described the salute of his day in this quaint, but colourful, word-picture:

Salute, in military matters, a discharge of artillery, or small arms, or both, in honour of some person of extraordinary quality. The colours likewise salute royal persons, and generals commanding in chief; which is done by lowering the point to the ground. In the field, when a regiment is to be reviewed by the king, or his general, the drums beat a march as he passes along the line, and the officers salute one after another, bowing their half-pikes or swords to the ground; then recover, and take off their hats. The ensigns salute all together, by lowering their colour.Footnote 1

Salutes can be categorized as royal salutes, national salutes and personal salutes. Such marks of respect or paying of compliments are accorded in different ways, examples being: the hand salute; the sound of bugles or trumpet; piping the side on board ship; the playing of the national anthem and other musical salutes; parading guards and bands; the discharge of guns; and the dipping of ensigns and lowering of colours. Each form of salute has a long tradition of its own.

The hand salute is the personal salute of officers and other ranks. It is a symbolic movement having several meanings. It is a greeting. It is a mark of mutual respect, trust and confidence. It is an act of courtesy and good manners. It is a mark of loyalty. It is a recognition of the authority vested in the queen's commission and the responsibility and status of the bearer of that commission; it also demonstrates the willingness, indeed the obligation, to accept direction. And there is no servility in the salute, no loss of dignity, for everyone in the Service has a superior and receives direction, right up to the chief of the defence staff and Her Majesty the Queen who exercise their various authorities by virtue of the powers vested in them by Act of Parliament.

The hand salute of the Canadian Forces is the naval salute in which the palm of the hand is turned slightly down and inwards, and is not seen, unlike the flat, open-palmed salute of the army and air force tradition. It was adopted at the time of the unification of the forces in 1968. Yet, historically, the hand salute was used in the British army long before it was in the Royal Navy.

There are several stories about the origin of the hand salute, but because of the long practice of this custom such beliefs can seldom be substantiated. Most contain the idea of showing friendly intention: the open right hand, the weapon hand, empty; the visor of the knight's helmet lifted to the open position, showing the face and demonstrating the voluntary vulnerability of the person saluting. However, in spite of the lack of hard evidence, it would seem reasonable to assume that the hand salute has evolved from the ancient gesture of greeting and mark of respect the uncovering of the head, which, itself probably originated in the days of chivalry.Footnote 2

Previous to the middle of the eighteenth century, in the British army as well as on the continent, it seems quite clear that the personal salute was given by removing the hat. Indeed, this custom persisted in the Royal Navy well into the nineteenth century. But in the years between the Rising in Scotland (1745) and the American Revolution (1776), certain regiments of the British army sporadically introduced the hand salute of touching the head-dress. A regimental order of the Coldstream Guards in 1745 read: "The men ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats, and bow as they pass by." This would seem a reasonable step when one considers the ornate design of the regimental headdresses of the period and the wear and tear involved in their continual removal.Footnote 3

This would seem, too, to explain the difference between the army salute — the flat, open palm and the simple touching of the elaborate hats of the time, and the naval salute — the turned down palm (said to be soiled with pitch) being the first movement of seizing the broad-brimmed tarpaulin hat of the sailor between thumb and forefinger for purposes of removal in saluting. Certainly, the naval hand salute, the one used today in the Canadian Forces, became official in the Royal Navy in 1890 and was clearly defined in article 145 of King's Regulations & Admiralty Instructions (1908) which applied to the newly established Royal Canadian Navy on its formation in 1910.Footnote 4

Of course, the hand salute has a much wider application than the mark of respect given and returned by individual persons. There is the expression of loyalty when the national anthem is played; of respect for the flag and what it stands for, at colours and sunset; and for the queen's colour and the standards, colours and guidons of units.

One such observance is peculiar to shipboard life. It is customary for officers and men to salute when boarding and leaving the ship. In some navies, the person pauses at the ship's side, faces the stern (where the ensign and quarter-deck are located) and then salutes. Although this is not normal practice in HMC ships, the salute associated with stepping on to the quarter-deck is still a practice in Canadian ships of war.

The origin and precise meaning of the salute to the quarter-deck have long been debated. Some claim that it is a mark of respect for the place of command and the royal authority from which the command, the captain's commission, is derived. But many historians believe, though without solid evidence, that this salute has evolved from an obeisance paid to a shrine or crucifix which it is said was once housed aft, and may even be related to religious observances of pre-Christian times.

Certainly, there is abundant proof that, for centuries, the quarter-deck has been considered a territory almost hallowed in nature, respected as the place of honour in the ship, the seat of authority and command, an area of the upperdeck restricted to use by only certain members of the ship's company, and requiring a standard of dress and decorum not demanded for other parts of the ship.Footnote 5 Something of the aura of a respect approaching reverence peculiar to the quarter-deck may be seen in this excerpt from the writings of a sea officer nearly a century and a half ago:

Every person, not excepting the captain, when he puts his foot on this sacred spot, touches his hat... So completely does this form grow into a habit, that in the darkest night, and when there may not be a single person near the hatchway, it is invariably attended to with the same precision.Footnote 6

In HMC ships, what is deemed to be the forward limit of the quarter-deck is marked by a strip of brass fixed to the deck plating, forming a line across the ship's deck from side to side. This is a far cry from the quarter-deck of the old "wooden walls," elevated above the main deck and, yet again, above the half-deck. And it may be because of the radical changes in ship design that the ancient custom of saluting the quarter-deck is, in fact, waning. The locating of sonar detection gear, mortar wells and flight decks in the after part of the modern destroyer has probably doomed the spacious quarter-decks of yesteryear and, therefore, the activities and observances traditionally associated with them.

Finally, there is the hand salute which is given in certain units in commemoration of those who have gone before, an act which symbolizes what might be called the "spirit of the Regiment." Each day all ranks on first entering the armoury housing the Royal Montreal Regiment face and salute a tablet fixed to the wall which is dedicated to the regiment's fatal battle casualties. The same observance is made in the Belleville Armoury of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment where an eight foot square plaque in the form of a crown and shoulder flash, unveiled in 1965, is a reminder of those who have been transferred to the regiment's "White Battalion".Footnote 7 Similarly, all ranks who pass the plaque in the centre of the drill hall of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal pause and salute the regimental dead who fell "au champ d'honneur."Footnote 8

The cadets of the Royal Military College of Canada, Kingston, are reared in the same tradition. At the entrance to the college grounds is a massive gate of limestone and granite erected by the RMC Club, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1923 by the Governor-General, Viscount Byng of Vimy. On bronze tablets affixed to the gate are the names of the college's war dead. In keeping with the custom of the Service, all cadets salute the Royal Military College Memorial Arch.Footnote 9

Closely related to the hand salute is the salute when armed with a rifle, the "present arms," and the first movement of the "present," the butt salute. Here again is the continuing theme of voluntary defencelessness to show friendly intent. In the position assumed by the sentry or guard the weapon is harmless.

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An early instance of the present was the case of the Green Regiment, one of the regiments of the City of London Trained Bands or Militia, at the Restoration of 1660. This unit formed a guard of honour at Southwark Bridge for the return from exile of King Charles II. We are told that these troops "who by order of their Officer's, had presented to His Majesty as he passed the Butt end of their Musquets, gave and discharged a great many Vollies of shot" after the royal cortege had passed.Footnote 10

Although there is no official Canadian Forces pattern sword, this weapon is till used on ceremonial occasions, and this despite the fact that the Royal Canadian Air Force discontinued the use of the sword in 1952. Swords are used by armed parties escorting the queen's and unit colours, and in change of command ceremonies. Sea officers still wear swords when making formal calls on dignitaries at ports-of-call.

As in other forms of salute, the sword, though drawn, is, in the final position, pointing to the ground, a friendly, as opposed to a hostile, gesture. This act symbolizes the trust in putting down one's guard. The guard, or that part of the sword protecting the hand, was in early times in the form of a cross, and still is in some patterns today. This has given rise to the long-held belief that the first movement, wherein the hilt is brought up to the chin, is a relic of the Crusader of medieval times and his custom of kissing the cross (hilt) immediately before going into combat.

The firing of gun salutes in honour of a royal or other distinguished personage, or in honour of a foreign state, or to mark a special occasion, is a very old custom. Gun salutes executed by the Canadian Forces today are fired from the guns of HMC ships, and by batteries of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery at designated saluting stations from coast to coast.

This ancient custom seems first to have developed in ships at sea. In the days of sail, the guns ranged at their ports along the length of the gun decks were often kept fully shotted and charged, ready for action. Firing them in salute meant that for the considerable length of time it took to swab, re-load and run out the guns again, the ship was virtually defenceless, indicating friendly intent.

Some form of protocol measuring the degree of honour accorded by the number of rounds fired has always been observed. Many a gunner has passed marbles from one pocket to the other to make certain of avoiding insulting some lofty personage or causing an international incident! It is interesting to compare the language used in regulations today with those of nearly two centuries ago:

Military honours consisting of gun salutes ... to distinguished personages ... shall be classified as: ... General Salutes in which the number of rounds fired depends on the occasion or the status of the personage being honoured ....Footnote 11

When any Persons of Quality, or of a Public Character, embark on board any of His Majesty's Ships, they may be saluted at their coming on board, and also at their departure, with the foIlowing Number of Guns. viz.:

  • A Duke, or Ambassador with 15 Guns. Other Public Ministers, or Persons of Quality, with 11 guns or less, according to the Degree of their Quality.Footnote 12

The point that intrigues most people regarding the gun salute is the fact that on most occasions the number of rounds fired, both long ago and in modern times, is an odd number: twenty-one guns for a royal salute and national salute, nineteen for an ambassador, seventeen for an admiral or a general, and so on. Here, again, much has been written about this interesting custom related as it is to ancient religious beliefs and old superstitions. Shakespeare was very much aware of this phenomenon, as shown in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," where he has Falstaff saying in regard to a third-time occurrence:

I hope good luck lies in odd numbers ... They say there is divinity in odd numbers ... (Act V, Scene I).

The fact is that, traditionally, odd numbers in the firing of salutes meant joyous occasions, and even numbers indicated death, though, of course, there have been exceptions. A seventeenth century writer had this to say:

The odd number in ways of salute and ceremony is so observable at sea, that whensoever guns be given otherwise it is taken for an expression that either the Captain, or Master, or Master Gunner is dead in the voyage .... It is a general custom also (as aforesaid) upon the death either of the Captain, Master, Master-Gunner, or any chief officer, that when the corpse is thrown overboard to its sea grave, to ring the knell and farewell with some guns; the which (as aforenoted) are always to be of an even number. Footnote 13

Just when the practice of firing gun salutes took on the status symbol system of number of rounds fired is not known. The evidence suggests the human frailty of one-upmanship was the villain. Certainly, as early as Elizabethan times, there were complaints about the expense of firing guns in salute in large numbers.Footnote 14 This led to various regulations designed to limit and define the number of rounds fired.

One of these was published in 1688 in London called "An Establishment Touching Salutes by Guns to be Henceforth Observed in His Majesty's Royal Navy." A scale of salutes to be accorded naval officers was laid down: for a captain, eleven guns; for a captain doing the duty of a commodore, thirteen guns; a rear-admiral, fifteen guns; a vice-admiral, seventeen guns; and an admiral, nineteen guns. No mention was made of the honours to be accorded royalty, but by regulation in 1731 the admiralty decreed that a royal salute was to be "such number of guns as the Chief Officer shall think proper not exceeding 21 guns each ship." Thus, it would seem that the salute for the sovereign was perhaps a progression from that for an admiral.Footnote 15 But where the Lord High Admiral of England came into the picture was not mentioned.

A quite different form of salute is the dipping of the ensign. It evolved from the early custom of lowering topsails or, in small craft, letting fly the mainsheet. In spilling air out of the sail, the symbolic gesture of taking way off the vessel was achieved, indicating submission. This idea can be seen in an eighteenth century seaman's handbook: "To lower or strike the Flag, is to pull it down upon the Cap; and is either done in saluting with the utmost Respect, or in Token of yielding to an Enemy in Fight."Footnote 16

In the British tradition the custom of dipping the ensign to a ship of the Royal Navy developed in the centuries between King John and Trafalgar, a period of six centuries. The English monarchs demonstrated their sovereignty over the "Narrow Seas" of the English Channel by demanding, and for the most part getting, this mark of respect for the British flag.Footnote 17

Finally, the gun salute has for centuries had a part in expressing the joy of a people's thanksgiving, much in the same spirit as a Te Deum is sung in the churches for deliverance from catastrophe. Sometimes the guns roared out in the sheer joy of celebration.

One such occasion on the grand scale was the celebration of a small city, Norwich in East Anglia, when the Spanish Armada was destroyed in battle and storm in 1588.

On 22 September, the daye of giving God thanks for the overthrowe of the Spanyards, the great guns were firing salvoes in salute all day long, the town's soldiers let off their calivers and muskets in the meadows. The flags were hung out and to the accompaniment of drums, flutes and trumpets the waits [official bands of musicians maintained by a city or town] sang at the city cross.Footnote 18

Many have seen the great cross illuminated against the night sky high on Mount Royal above the city of Montreal. But few relate that scene to one that occurred only a few decades after the Armada battle.

The stockaded settlement of Ville-Marie on the island of Montreal was founded in 1642. On Christmas Day that first year, the little fort housing Maisonneuve and Messieurs et Dames de la Société de Notre-Dame pour la conversion des Sauvages de la Nouvelle-France was threatened with imminent destruction by floodwaters of the swollen St. Lawrence.

On 6 January, the day of the Feast of St. Joseph, 1643, Maisonneuve carried to the mountain top a newly fashioned cross and the settlers erected it there in gratitude for their deliverance. On returning to the fort, the tiny garrison continued the celebration "by the firing of the cannons that stood on a platform to defend the settlement."Footnote 19

Very few Canadian cities have had the distinction of receiving their names accompanied by a royal salute. Such was the case for Toronto. It was 24 August 1793 and the site, protected from lake-borne gales by Toronto Island, had for inhabitants a few friendly Indians and a small garrison. It was at this time that Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe learned of the Duke of York's victory at Famars earlier in the year. To celebrate the victory and to mark the naming of the new station, York, Simcoe soon marshalled his resources. Drawn up on the sandy beach at the edge of the pine forest were twelve- and eighteen-pounders brought earlier from Oswegatchie and Carleton Island, and a detachment of the Queen's Rangers. Offshore lay HM Schooners Mississaga and Onondaga. All the forces that day participated in the royal salute which simultaneously gave thanks for success against the enemy in Europe and marked the beginning of a great city which would rise out of the wilderness of the New World.Footnote 20

Finally, there is one royal salute that must surely have confounded the queen's enemies. It was 2 June 1953 in the Canadian lines opposite Hill 227, to the northward of Panmunjom in Korea. In the celebration marking the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, "a bounteous rum issue provided the wherewithal for a toast to Her Majesty" by the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Canadian Regiment. But, not to be outdone by the "footsloggers," the divisional artillery and tanks of Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians), supporting the RCRs, fired salutes. Some of these salvoes revealed themselves to be red, white and blue smoke enveloping "two humps known to be occupied by the enemy."Footnote 21

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