Toasts in the Army

By Lieut.-Colonel C. C. R. Murphy

(Published in the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. XCIII, February to November 1948)

A TOAST may be defined as a pledge in drinking, a way of expressing a wish for the health and happiness of persons or the success and prosperity of things. The custom of drinking them certainly bears the stamp and charm of antiquity. It had its origin in love or war, and so the first person to drink a toast must have been either a lover or a soldier; he was probably both.

Fighting is the oldest craft in the world; but although a standing army is, in these islands, a comparatively modern institution, let us not forget that there has been a British Army ever since the dawn of our history. What customs prevailed amongst our prehistoric soldiers we cannot say; but in the Middle Ages, when our Army was composed of its finest material-namely, the yeomen of England - the practice of drinking toasts was already well established. And it has outlasted the voluntary Army.

No doubt regiments that existed before the days of the standing Army-such as the Earl of Pembroke's Regiment, mentioned by Shakespeare in Richard III - honoured toasts of their own. The custom may have been started by one or more regiments drinking .a certain toast on a certain night of the week. Then, as it gathered popularity, regiments may have agreed amongst themselves to drink the same toast on the same night, until at last the custom became general and a fixed set of toasts was evolved and recognized throughout the Army. For some reason or other, these eventually became known as the Peninsular Toasts. The list is as follows: Monday, "Our Men; "Tuesday, "Our Women"; Wednesday, " Our Noble Selves; "Thursday, "Our Swords;" Friday, "Our Religion;" Saturday, "Sweethearts and Wives;" Sunday, "Absent Friends."

As will be seen, they are brief, simple and inclusive, and of course quite unconnected with politics or sects. No exception could be taken to any of them - not even to that of " Our Swords," which in those days were never drawn without cause and never sheathed without honour. These toasts, some of which may be centuries, older than their collective name implies, were honoured by regiments, irrespective of whether they had served in the Peninsular War or not, which had nothing to do with the case. Perhaps the most popular of them were "Sweethearts and Wives", and "Absent Friends." The first of these was proposed by the junior officer at the table or else was drunk informally; whilst to the second the words "and ships at sea" were sometimes added.

I believe Mr. Winston Churchill has referred to the Peninsular Toasts in his writings, though I cannot remember where. Andre Maurois, in Les Silences du Colonel Bramble, has given a list of toasts for each night in the week as drunk in the British Army, but it differs slightly from the Peninsular list. (Footnote to original: “Among other informal toasts, that of ‘Fox-hunting’ was honoured from time to time by enthusiasts of the chase.”

Very different in character from the above was the unofficial toast of "Bloody War or a Sickly Season," often drunk in India, but only on informal occasions. In the days closely following the Mutiny, when promotion was slow, subalterns were wont to express this sentiment and raise their glasses in the hope that if these evils came they might be the fortunate survivors.

The XVIIIth Century found a divided loyalty to England and, after the " Forty-five," certain regiments disaffected towards the Sovereign were ordered to drink his health. To salve their consciences, the Jacobite officers of the day used to stretch their glasses over their finger-bowls and drink to “The King over the water." Ever since those days it has not been the custom to put finger-bowls on the mess table. (Footnoted: Major R. M. Grazebrook, O.B.E., M.C" in the ]ournal of the Society for Army Historical Research.) Some regiments of the old Army, such as the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, the King's Royal Rifles, and many more, priding themselves that their loyalty was never in doubt; did not drink the health of the Sovereign at all. Others, equally trusty, drank it every night.

The actual procedure followed in honouring the loyal toast was marked by some interesting variations in different regiments. For example, the 1st Royal Sussex, the Royal Norfolk, the East Surreys, and the Border Regiment (except on guest nights when the band played) used to remain seated when drinking it. The Black Watch drank to the King and Queen, whilst the old 54th Foot always drank the Sovereign's health in a bumper toast. In the case of the Lancashire regiments, the loyal toast in certain circumstances took the form of “The King, Duke of Lancaster."

Special reference must be made to two toasts connected With the Peninsular War. The first of these was "The Emperor," drunk by the 14th Hussars, the origin of it being as follows, During that campaign the regiment captured part of the baggage train of the Emperor Joseph Napoleon, and amongst other things found therein was a fine silver domestic utensil bearing his coat of arms. From it the health of “The Emperor" was always drunk on guest nights. The other toast is that of “Dyas and the Stormers," drunk by the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. It commemorates the gallantry of Ensign John Dyas, 51St Light Infantry, who at Badajos on three separate occasions led the storming parties in the face of almost certain death, His conduct must have been of an exceptionally high order, because the toast was sometimes drunk in the messes of other regiments - a very unusual circumstance.

Some of the regiments who served in the Peninsula celebrate particular battles of that war either at mess or by setting aside their anniversaries as regimental holidays. For instance, every year on 16th May, the old 57th Foot used to drink "To those who fell at Albuhera," in memory of the 415 " Die-hards " killed in that battle. Similarly, the 5oth Foot, on the anniversary of Corunna, used to drink to the II Corunna Majors,!' who led the regiment on that occasion and attracted the favourable notice of Sir John Moore. The two officers concerned were Charles Napier and the, Hon. Charles Stanhope, who was killed. Battles of other wars, such as Dettingen and Minden,' were also commemorated; b1it strange to say, glasses were seldom raised to those who fought and fell at Waterlo0--the most famous battle in the history of the world.

Most of the Scotch, Irish and Welsh regiments drank to the pious memory of their Patron Saint on the appropriate day, though St. George was not honoured to the same extent by English regiments. On St. David's Day, the ceremony of eating the leek was also observed by the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In the Cameronians, it was not the practice to honour toasts at all. In the case of the 1St Battalion, the origin of this goes back to the early days of the Covenanters when the drinking of healths was contrary to their religious beliefs. The 2nd Battalion, formerly the 90th Perthshire Light Infantry, did not observe the loyal toast either; but according to the wits of the day, this was because they had not been granted the Prince Regent's Allowance!

In passing, a word about this special mess allowance will not be inappropriate. It was instituted by the Prince Regent at the beginning of the Peninsular War, and amounted to £250 a year in the case of a regiment of full establishment. This enabled the officers to obtain, duty free, four pipes of port, and thus put them on a more or less equal footing with the Navy who already enjoyed a drawback of the duty on wines consumed on board ship. In those days and until recent years, no officer in the British Army under the rank of Captain could live without private means. He had to payout of his own pocket for the honour of serving. In the Navy, the position was different; nevertheless, it was felt that there was no justification for the disparity between the two Services in the matter of excise duties. This, of course, had been the reason for its introduction; but after being- in existence for just over a century, it was suddenly abolished during the reign of King George V.

One of the most inspiring regimental toasts was that of the Seaforth Highlanders, given in Gaelic by the Pipe-Major on guest nights. It ran as follows:-

"The land of hills, glens, and heroes; where the ptarmigan thrives and where the red deer finds shelter; as long as mist hangs o'er the mountains and water runs in the glens, may the deeds of its brave be remembered, and health and victory be with the lads of the Cabar Feidh."

In 1940, a regulation was issued permitting officers to drink the King's health in water or other non-alcoholic beverages - a portent of the watery grave to which the old Army with all its traditions was about to be committed.


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