There is probably no subject more imposing to the new officer, or more clouded in the mysteries of implied traditions and expectations, than the Officers' Mess.
By Capt M.M. O'Leary, The RCR
"The officers' mess. Everything revolved around the mess. Mess dinners. Mess social events. Mess bar. It was every regiments' central gathering place for exchanging ideas, jokes, scandals and complaints. There were happy messes, sad messes, stuffy messes and casual messes. But there were no nonalcoholic messes in the Canadian or British armies." - from "The Making of a Warrior", Land Force Staff Course handout (1998).
I believe that not much has been written addressing the issue of Messes lately because it has become a relatively volatile subject. It is difficult to express to other officers the inherent importance of the mess in regimental (unit) life and its historic origins and roles unless they have taken the time to study such concepts in the first place. I have seen units with strong esprit de corps and a healthy vigorous mess life, as well as others that had little spirit for which attendance at Mess was a chore and an imposition in the views of many officers. I feel that there is a strong correlation between the spirit of a unit, its commander's effectiveness as a leader and the use of the Mess as a place to foster and share that spirit among the unit's officers.
Too many officers today perceive that the traditional role of the Mess was simply as a focus for the officers' social activities in the absence of other options. (There are more than enough references to the role of the Mess in garrison societies as one of various notable social establishments to refute the argument on these grounds.) If this observation is accepted as a valid argument, those who espouse it can then readily disregard the continuance of Messes since so many opportunities for social outlets exist for our officers today. That, combined with the careerist and hierarchical trends in modern western militaries which has all but eliminated the importance of trust and peer group strengthening among officers has only served to further weaken the role of the modern Mess.
The Mess goes further than a place for the officers to drink or dine. It is where they get to know one another beyond the strict professional interaction of their primary duties. S.L.A. Marshall strongly supported the role of the "primary group" among soldier in combat. I believe that the principle is equally valid across an unit's command environment. Any two company commanders, for example, must know and trust one another as much as any pair of riflemen in a section. The company commanders do not have the opportunity to establish the same bonds as the soldiers through the course of their everyday duties, the Mess has always enabled that very opportunity to build and strengthen such important ties. "The man on the left" of any commander, is the commander of the next similar sized element. Within a unit, they must establish that concept of primary group to maintain the same cohesion throughout the command structure as we perceive is built within any section or fire team, the Mess is the only place this can be done. - M.M. O'Leary, August 2001
There is probably no subject more imposing to the new officer, or more clouded in the mysteries of implied traditions and expectations, than the Officers' Mess. Presenting a unique blend of propriety (deference to seniors, dress and decorum) and impropriety (the Snake Pit), mess games, horseplay and irreverence) that the Mess can present a veritable minefield of career hazards to the unwary or incautious, a situation sorely compounded by those who might take advantage of the inexperience of a new Mess member.
One might think that the Officers' mess is a truly unique setting in the Regiment, author George MacDonald Fraser, as evidenced by the following passage, might disagree:
The ignorant or unwary, if asked whether they would rather be guests of an officers' mess or sergeants', would probably choose the officers'. They might be motivated by snobbery, but probably also by the notion that that the standards of cuisine, comfort, and general atmosphere would be higher. They would be dead wrong. - opening paragraph to G.M. Fraser, The Whiskey and the Music, The General Danced at Dawn, 1970
Young officers might one day be introduced to the Senior NCOs' Mess proper, if they belong to a regiment that exchanges hosting nights, perhaps on alternate Christmas seasons. But their more immediate concern is their own early experiences in the Officers' Mess. Many older guides for young officers, such as those linked from the main Senior Subaltern page, expound upon mess etiquette, and these do provide a safe zone for initial behaviour, once the more obviously dated advice is discarded.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned on joining the Mess is the generic creatures that frequent this habitat, Alden Nowlan, notes some of the major personality divisions in his poem "The Officers Mess". Anyone who frequented the Snake Pit in St. Andrews Barracks Officers' Mess in Gagetown will remember this from the wall beside the door.
Some general points that may not be found in the older literature follow, keep in mind, however, that every Mess has its own ways:
In many messes the officers will stand on the entry or departure of the CO. When visiting another's Mess it is polite to follow the lead of those present.
The PMC is the senior officer elected by the mess membership to run the Mess' affairs. His committee will normally be comprised of a Vice-PMC, a Treasurer, Secretary, and such other members as are decided necessary to supervise the running of the mess, common appointments may include the a Living-In representative and a Bar member.
Probably one of the most mysterious and intimidating events is that first Regimental Mess Dinner. With few equivalents in society that may familiarize a young officer with the sequence, etiquette and activities at a mess dinner, the collection of comments often directed toward the new officer can be difficult to piece together an fair expectation of what will happen. While Regimental custom will ensure that every dinner experience is unique, a good start point for review can be found here.
The mess will be one of the Regiment's repositories of regimental memorabilia which demands a high degree of respect and deference in its handling and treatment. The property of other units in the Mess as well as the gifts of departing officers shall be accorded similar deference. Officers who damage Mess property are well-advised to see the Adjutant to report their error, and the Mess Manager, if appropriate, to make restitution, before the head-hunting begins. If planned mess activities may pose a threat to irreplaceable items, they should be cleared from the affected Mess rooms, with the PMC's permission, of course, or alternative playing fields should be sought.
Traditionally, the subjects of women, politics, religion and work are touted to be out-of-bounds in the Mess. Though rarely stringently upheld these days, young officers should note that some subjects may be considered taboo in some messes.
"Officers who have nothing to discuss except their daily routine become intolerable bores." - Customs of the Service (Advise to those newly commissioned) by A.H.S., 1939
One of the bells hanging in the bar at Wolseley Barracks Officers' Mess, London, Ontario.
Hanging beside the bar in (probably) every Mess will be found a bell. In many this will have been made from an expended artillery shall casing. The ringing of the bell indicates that the ringer is offering to buy a round (i.e., of drinks) for all present, often this is done to celebrate the ringer's promotion. By custom in some messes, an inadvertent ringing of the bell, whether by accident or trickery, can be considered a similar offer.
The days of officers being expected to hold their own at the bar are long gone, even where there remain a few that might try to convince new officers otherwise. An officer is never under any compulsion to consume alcohol, regardless of the event or conditions set before him (or her). Even the Loyal Toast may be drunk with water if an officer is a teetotaler or otherwise abstaining. And as in any social setting, moderation in the consumption of alcohol can go a long way to establishing one's reputation for personal responsibility.
"The Officers' mess is not only the home of individual officers, but it is the home of the unit officers as a group. It is essential, therefore, that an officer should behave as he would wish other to behave in his own home. A great number of personal likes and dislikes must be put aside for the benefit of the Mess as a whole.
"Noisy behaviour, ragging, clinking of glasses, and other forms of rowdyism in the Mess, should be avoided, especially at the Mess table. The forming of mess "cliques" should be avoided at all costs. They kill the family spirit in the Mess, besides causing a lot of bad feeling, which is very quickly evident to the rest of the unit.
"An officer must realise that the habit of drinking too much is not clever, nor is it amusing for other members of the mess; it sets a very bad example. Behaviour in an Officers' Mess will very quickly become common knowledge in the unit; the Sergeants' and Corporals' Messes will model their behaviour accordingly. It is essential that the behaviour in an Officers' Mess should be exemplary, as it has a direct bearing on the discipline throughout a unit." - Customs of the Army, The War Office, February, 1956
The Snake Pit is usually a small room near the bar where more relaxed rules apply, and where those who have decided to be so can remain segregated from those enjoying the decorum of the main lounge and bar. In some messes, dress in the Snake Pit may even allow jeans or PT gear at certain times of the day or following regimental sports.
(From the North Park Armouries Officers' Mess Snake Pit, Halifax, Nova Scotia)
Various regiments partake in mess games, often in the aftermath of a Mess Dinner. These games may range from chair borne polo with soup spoons and an orange, to cabbage football, to any more strenuous activities that may be born in the mind of those whose inhibitions and sense of bodily safety have been diminished by the consumption of ethanol based beverages. Other games found in Messes may be presented as a friendly way to "play for drinks", a dangerous occupation for those who enter the fray after a few libations expecting to learn the rules in fair sport along the way.
Crud is a game played upon the Mess' pool table. Some Messes have banned the game, and rightly so when their intention is to limit wear and tear on the table, for Crud can be very rough on the furniture. For the uninitiated, here are a generic set of Crud rules, bear in mind that these may change from Mess to Mess.
The rattling of dice in a small wooden box loaded with noisemakers to disguise the number of free dice, the passing of the box from hand to hand around the stand-up table accompanied by cryptic comments until one admits defeat and calls for a round of drinks for the table. For those who have not yet fallen victm to this game best played between the old hands in the snake pit, here are a generic set of Liars Dice rules, bear in mind that these also may change from Mess to Mess.