British Military Mess
Traditions & Rules
Rituals of dining have existed since humans have joined together for meals. Mess traditions in the British army began to evolve in the eighteenth century when regiments would be stationed in remote locations, including North America. It was only reasonable that the officers, most of whom were from the upper classes of British society, would combine their resources and dine together. Outside of British urban areas there were few other options for refreshment or civilized company.
By the early nineteenth century messing had been formalized with officers electing mess committees to oversee their daily dining. Rules of conduct evolved throughout the nineteenth century. More importantly, gentlemen were expected to behave within the norms of a rigid etiquette established by Georgian and Victorian society. The more the wine flowed the more difficult it may have been for such high standards of moral conduct to have been maintained.
As the nineteenth century progressed and the British army saw itself as being the best army in the world, specific regiments and branches of the armed forces developed their own unique traditions and rules. Presidents and vice-presidents, generally members of the elected mess committees, presided over the mess to ensure that decorum prevailed. If there were breeches of etiquette or mess rules the president or mess committee could censure the offending parties with fines of bottles of wine or other punishments deemed appropriate to the infraction.
Generally discussions would not surround the topics of religion, politics or love. Pets were often not allowed in the mess. And depending on the fashion of the times, you were required to wear your hat or not wear your hat in the mess. Gaming, wagering or reading at the table was often not permitted. Intelligent and witty conversation was encouraged. If mess china or glass was broken there would be a charge. Smoking cigars was generally not permitted until after dessert was removed from the table. The highest standards of manners and etiquette were always to be observed.
It was customary to toast the ruling monarch prior to dessert service. The toast to the monarch or the Loyal Toast was always the first toast of the evening. Other toasts were permitted only after the Loyal Toast. It was also customary once seated to not leave the table prior to the Loyal Toast as this could show disrespect to the monarch. This latter tradition no doubt caused many an officer and guest some discomfort.
Officers were permitted to select soldiers from the ranks to act as servants. These soldier servants served in the mess on a rotating roster. Officers of wealth would often have their civilian servants as well as their soldier servants attending them at the table. The officers were required to clothe their servants appropriately and some regiments developed stylish and expensive regalia for their servants to wear in an attempt to outclass other regiments. Having the reputation for the best food, best china and best service was something that many regiments aspired to. Honour and reputation in the mess were very important for the social status of the officer corps of a regiment.
Mess dining probably reached its apex in the late Victorian period. As the class structure declined through the twentieth century so declined the need to maintain the strict separation of soldier and officer and the need to encourage the culture of the honour of the brotherhood of officers which was one of the backbones of nineteenth century British military tradition.
At Fort Henry today, often a guest will be selected to preside as president of the mess activity. The president will ensure that all behave as Victorian ladies and gentlemen would. Should any guests be out of character the president may choose to punish them by asking them to stand and tell a short story or sing a short song. Should guests need to leave the table prior to the toast to the Queen, they should ask the permission of the president. The president will offer the toast to the Queen or assign that duty to another guest. In some cases where port is served for the toast to the Queen there is a ritual of service which includes passing the port decanters in a ceremonial manner to charge the port glasses. Once the glasses are charged the toast may be made.