In Aid of Fewer Extras
and an Easier Life in the Subalterns' Mess

Originally published for the junior officers of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, 1977

The purpose of this discussion is not to embarrass or belittle any officer. A great number of new subalterns past and present have, unfortunately, learned to conduct themselves socially only after a great deal of embarrassment. This is rather a hit-and-miss way of learning to conduct yourself which is neither effective nor pleasant. Unfortunately with this method in order to be corrected in regard to what you have done wrong you must first do it.

Port is always passed to the left. In this Regiment [i.e., The RCR] there is no ceremony involved. The decanter is neither pushed along the table, or kept above the table as is the tradition in some other regiments or corps.

In the recent past a great number of social customs formerly practised by officers have fallen into disuse. It is not the purpose of this discussion to resurrect the dead. Indeed many of those customs may be better left buried with the Army of British India.

Officers are still however, required to conduct themselves in a manner which reflects not only in a positive light on the Forces but on themselves as well.

As officers we attend a large number of formal and semi-formal functions both civil and military. At such functions there is a code or standard of social behaviour the foundations of which are basic good manners and common sense. Whether you agree or disagree with the form they take really does not matter. The one who will suffer the most embarrassment and discomfort is yourself, except of course for anyone else in the room who happens to know you.

Social Functions in the Mess

We have all heard the old saying "the mess is your home" It is also the home of the other members, and we are all bound to show consideration for the wishes of the other members of the family Thus we obviously do not have the same freedom as we would in our own home. Also, when the mess entertains guests we are all hosts. As such, all should try hard to put their best foot forward, whether it be in conversation or at the dinner table.

The formats for the various Mess Dinners, Dinings In , and Receptions differ from mess to mess and function to function This really poses no problem for any officer as he can and should always refer to the Senior Subaltern or Adjutant for guidance in such matter

All functions have a few things which are very basic guidelines and will avert considerable misery on your part. For example the time a function of an official or formal nature will be given to you (e.g., 1900 hrs or 1930 hrs or 2000 hrs), You must be there by that time. There ts no such thing as being tactfully late. The expression "1930 hrs for 2000 hrs" is not designed to give you flexibility. You are required to be there at 1930 hrs. This allows you to arrive meet any guests, and enjoy a pre-dinner drink.

Another area of common ground involves your departure from the mess. In some battalions you are expected to say good night to the Commanding Officer when retiring for the day. It is not required that you go up to him, click your heels, and ask permission to leave. You are merely saying "Good night" to him the way you would to a host at any party. At formal or official functions you should also say "Good night" to the PMC and your Company Commander. At functions where there are guests in the mess, you should not leave until the mess guests and the Commanding Officer have departed. This is not to say you should always remain until the last dog is hung. If there is a guest left in the mess who just doesn't know when to go home, and you are not the only one left in the mess who was foolish enough to patronize his slobbering platitudes all evening then by all means say your goodbyes and excuse yourself. Mess Dinners A Mess Dinner s probably the most formal function that we as junior officers attend with any regularity. It may be held in accordance with a regimental event or tradition or for any other reason thought by a Commanding Officer to befit such formality. A few hopefully helpful hints are:

a.     A Mess Dinner is not optional. It is a Parade To be excused from attendance requires the Adjutant's (on the CO's behalf) concurrence and an excellent reason.

b.     Ensure that you are equipped to arrive properly dressed and on time. Your Mess Dress should not be at you parents' in Toronto, or in the cleaners. If you have not as of yet acquired Mess Dress, then Black Tie (Dinner jacket NOT CF Jacket with white shirt and black bow tie) is the next acceptable order of dress. If you do not have one as of yet then rent one. Do not try to rent one the day before It won't work. Give yourself at least two weeks 'Fudge Factor''. Generally, the only Officer at a Mess Dinner in Service Dress is the Battalion Orderly Officer, although if you are genuinely unable to arrive in Mess Dress or Black Tie, then S3 is usually the next level of acceptable dress. If in doubt, consult the Adjutant.

c.     It is a important to be on time for a Mess Dinner as it is to be on time for your audience with the Adjutant the next morning if you don't have a good reason why you were not.

d.     During the half-hour prior to dinner you should seek out and acquaint yourse1f with the guest you will be sitting with (if any) at dinner. As a genera1 rule you should entertain the guest on your right prior to going into dinner and see that he finds his seat. During dinner, please don't ignore him no matter how boring you may find him. It is very rude to spend the entire dinner talking to your fellow platoon commander about the finer aspects of platoon commanding while a Mess guest sits there talking to himself It is equally bad form to bore a civilian guest to death with your war stories, although there certainly is nothing wrong with generally acquainting him with a few aspects of your profession which he may find interesting, providing you don't take it to excess. Although some of us may not realize it there are other topics which can be discussed over dinner than Advance to Contact, the Canadian Forces Training System, and how overworked and underpaid we are (which no civilian believes anyway). Please don't bore your guests.

e.     The five Minute Call, or Five Minute Pipe, is to remind you that you will, be going into dinner in five minutes. During this time you should visit the washroom, as you may not have the opportunity again for several hours. Remember it is not permissible to leave the table at a Mess Dinner. The Call is not a signal for your to "stock up" on drinks or "chug" the one you have. It is a sign that you should finish your drink, check the seating plan if you have not already done so and marry up with any guest you may be escorting to dinner.

f.     The call to dinner is the signal to move into the dining room. You should do this as quickly as possible after the head table is in, without knocking down four people en route. The Commanding Officer always enters first, accompanied by any guest of honour, and followed by the remainder of the head table. You may then enter.

g.     On going into the dining room, you remain standing until after Grace is said. It is quite possible that you may be asked by the PMC to say Grace without prior warning. No elaborate preparation is required. A standing Army Grace is ''For what we are about to receive, thank God. Amen.''

h.     Should you for any reason enter late, you should, prior to sitting down go and offer your apology and/or explanation to the PMC. The same is true if for some reason you find you must leave the dinner prematurely.

j.     After each course of the meal along with the dishes, the wine glasses will be removed prior to the serving of the next course and accompanying wine. Do not attempt to keep your glass by loudly announcing to the steward, ''Hey waddaya doing, I'm not finished with that'' and tugging the glass out of his hand. Also, when he approaches to collect your glass it is in very poor taste ta scoop up your glass and down it in one gulp. These practices only make you look rude and serve to embarrass and confuse the steward who has been told to clear the glasses. If you wish to finish your wine it is very easy to do so by gauging yourself by the actions of the head table, and not waiting until the Wine Steward is standing right behind you.

k.     You should not begin to eat until the person being served after you has been served, and even then, not before the CO has commenced eating.

m.     Do not ask the waiter to bring you salt, pepper, catsup, or any other condiment that is not placed in front of you. If you don't see it, don't ask for it. It isn't coming. Food is well-cooked and prepared. It does not require the addition of other condiments.

n.     Following the meal, tables will be completely cleared and decanters of Port placed on the tab1e. Port is always passed to the left. In this Regiment there is no ceremony involved. The decanter is neither pushed along the table, or kept above the table as is the tradition in some other regiments or corps. Do not attempt to be courteous and pour the glass of the person on your right, prior to passing it to the left. It is not considered to be a gesture of good manners. The passing of the Port should not be delayed. When you have your glass filled, pass the decanter on without delay.

p.     Every glass being filled, the PMC will call on "Mr Vice" to offer the "Loyal Toast". When the PMC addresses in one official language, the toast will be proposed in the other official language. Mr. Vice would offer the toast in the following manner: "Gentlemen/monsieur La Reigne d Canada". All will then stand and if there is a band in attendance, the first six bars of the Royal Anthem are then played. All officers reply "The Queen" and drink Her Majesty's health. When a ban is not in attendance, all officers rise to their feet, pick up their glasses, respond "The Queen", and drink Her Majesty's health. If you are chosen as Mr. Vice it is a very simple duty. There is no requirement for you to attempt to embellish the wording of the toast with such phrases as "Charge your glasses" or "la sante de la Reine" Remember the KISS PRINCIPLE. It is also not acceptable to say "The Queen, God less Her". Smoking is not permitted until after the Toast to the Queen. The PMC may then say "Gentlemen, you may smoke". Also, it may be a practice that the Commanding Officer will light up, signifying that it is then permissible to smoke. You can never go wrong by watching the example of the Commanding Officer. In the end the acceptable standard is always his.

q.     When the CO and head table rise to leave the table, all officers should rise. Following dinner the Subalterns usually stay behind and finish the remaining Port Wine discussing such important matters as how the Battalion should be run and the world situation in general. It is not polite for a subaltern to desert the mess for the company of Senior officers at this point. The gathering should not take on the form of a Subs private party for the remainder of the evening, particularly when there are guests in the mess.

r.     After dinner you may choose to occupy yourself on whatever hilarity you indulge in, but never forget that you are an officer. Don't sit in a corner by yourself with an expression on your face that says, "What a bore, when can I leave?" During dinner, however, it is not acceptable to throw food, sugar, or generally carry on in a brash, loud manner. Before you throw the Commanding Officer out the dining room window or roll the Adjutant down the hill outside the Mess, ensure that he will receive the gesture in the same spirit as it is offered.

s.     Do not ignore guests after dinner. Also do not take it as your Personal crusade to monopolize ta conversation with the nearest general officer in order to tell him the short comings of his Command, or to "sort him out". There is nothing worse than witnessing a Second Lieutenant with three months in rank giving a General the gospel according to Lipshitz, it is disrespectful, rude, unofficerlike and the height of ignorance.

Dinings In

If you can struggle through the last sixteen paragraphs and a Mess Dinner without developing a nervous twitch or fourteen extras, then a Dining In poses no problem at all.

As a general rule, a Dining In is a great deal less formal than a Mess Dinner. Smoking is permitted and there are usually no toasts There are often fewer courses to the meal itself and fewer varieties of wine are served.

Dress will be detailed prior, although generally when in garrison the dress is Black Tie.

Good manners apply here as anywhere else, as do guidelines for arriving and departing and general conduct.

Mixed Dinners in the Mess

A mixed dinner in the Mess or a Ball is usually best described as a Mess Dinner with ladies present. The format of the dinner is generally the same except it is usually followed by a dance.

When going into dinner you should escort the lady seated on your right. It is also permissible that if Port is passed you pour for the lady on your left. In any case, a gentleman should ensure that proper etiquette is observed.

Following dinner the ladies, on the signal of the wife of the Commanding Officer, usually retire from the dining room for coffee while the officers remain behind for port and cigars.

Before you take lady to dinner in the Mess, ensure she knows what to wear, the dress is usually a long formal gown although in hot weather other forms of less formal attire may be acceptable. If your lady arrives in the inappropriate form of dress you may not hear about it from the Adjutant, but you will hear about it from her. A lady's first occasion in the mess at such a function can be a very terrifying experience. You can do a great deal to ease things by explaining some of our traditions and customs. It will serve to make her evening a great deal less frightening and hopefully yours a lot more enjoyable.

As a general rule it is not expected that you buy your lady flowers. However, if you wish to do so, use discretion in your choice of colour and ensure they match her dress.

Try not to ignore your lady all evening by standing with your fellow officers in the bar discussing business, This inevitably happens at every function, It is, however, particularly disconcerting for a single lady, her first time in the mess, when the only person at the function she knows is you.

Despite these few things, such functions need only he as stuffy and restrictive as good manners dictate. Obviously the sofa under the Queen's picture should not take on the appearance of a scene from "Love Story", nor should the dance floor take on the appearance of a Group Grope in Marrakesh. This is not to say you should not come within three feet of your date, but you should be able to use common sense without embarrassing yourself, her, or other officers.

It is customary for subalterns to dance at least one dance with their Company Commander's and the CO's wives. This is not to say that all subs should immediately line up and endeavour to turn the dance into a marathon for the CO's wife.

At functions of an extremely formal nature there will often be a Receiving Line. Ladies wear gloves. Gentlemen precede their lady and introduce her to the dignitaries in the Receiving Line The arrival of each couple may be announced at the door. In this case you hand your calling card to the staff doing the announcing. If accompanied by a single lady you may write her name on a separate card or on the bottom of your own

Cocktail Parties

Cocktail parties are nothing to be afraid of, The main thing is to be yourself and overcome the fear of mixing with other people. When we go to such a function where we know one or two people there it is a natural tendency to stick in a little group where you can easily talk to each other. Try to overcome this and you ma y find you'll meet some interesting people

RSVPs and Thank You Letters Although many people may think these to be out of date they are not. They are very widely used. RSVPs are very simple. Whenever time allows for a written reply you should make the effort. It is very simple and should generally take the format of the invitation itself (see example attached). It may be hand-written or typed.

Thank you letters are also very simple. They should be addressed to the hostess. Such letters should contain a simple statement of how you enjoyed yourself and perhaps reference to something you discussed or a mutual acquaintance. They don't need to be very long, and they are an excellent way of ensuring you are invited back (see example attached).

General Comments

There are many other things which could be discussed here (calling cards, levees, clothes, etc). These are other areas which offer food for thought. for example, all officers are expected to have Mess Dress, Black Tie, and a Lounge Suit. You should endeavour to acquaint yourself with the policy on such matters. This discussion has dealt primarily with things related to social functions but is y no means exhaustive. If you don't know, ask.

Table Manners

If you look at eating as a maintenance function then you may feel that the mechanics of the function itself is of a secondary nature. If you do believe this, then you should immediately resign your commission and take on the trappings of a Buddhist monk or some other profession which requires a lot of personal solitude or fasting.

Table manners are not something which you should just keep in a silver box, only to be brought out for Mess Dinners, Dinings In, or Diplomatic receptions. They apply equally at all times, even though those mentioned above are examples of times when your best efforts are required.

A Mess Dinner is a formal occasion when officers dine together. It is not supposed to take on the appearance of the Advance Encounter Battle. The food on your plate is already dead, you are not required to kill it, nor is it a race. The only prize you are likely to get for finishing first is an upset stomach, or the opportunity to talk to that crashing bore the Mess Sec was kind enough to seat you beside and who delights in telling you how it as when he was your age, and how young subalterns today don't have any spirit or knowledge of soldiering. (He's spent 23 years in the Postal Corps.)

Still the matter of eating in public is more important to an officer than many realize. You can very easily embarrass not only yourself, but your fellow officers, and particularly the Commanding Officer who will then be put through the discomfort of having to look down the head table only to observe Lt Lipshitz using judo on the fish course, and to give the PMC a look which will cause the latter to develop acute apoplexy. Needless to say this little circus is of no benefit to Lt Lipshitz. Perhaps these few points may be:

a.     Sit up straight. Don't loll abut like you're at some sort of Roman orgy, waiting for your handmaiden to peel you a grape. Keep your elbows off the table and close to your sides at all times.

b.     Drawing designs on the tablecloth with the knife and fork, crumbling of bread, beating a tattoo on the table wit h the silverware, playing with wine glasses, etc., are all in bad taste Gentle manners and quietness in eating mark the well-educated gentleman.

c.     The table napkin is laid across the lap, not tucked in the cummerbund or shirt collar. After the meal it is not folded but it is placed carelessly on the table.

d.     The silverware is laid out in the order it is to be used as a rule, the remaining outside utensils are always used next. The dessert utensils, and sometimes the soup spoon are placed at the top of the setting.

e.     Soup is always taken from the side of the spoon. The motion of the spoon is from front to back of the plate. Never tip the plate to get the last drop or blow on soup to cool it. Don't slurp.

f.     If consomme or bouillon is served in a double- handled cup, a tea or bouillon spoon is used first. After part o f the bouillon is consumed, it is permissible to lift the cup to the lips with both hands.

g.     A knife is held in the right hand, cutting edge down, with the index finger along the back of the blade.

h.     Bread or buns are broken with the fingers, not cut with a knife.

j.     The fork is held in the left hand, prongs down, to eat the food that the knife cuts. Vegetables may be eaten by holding the fork in the right hand and prongs up, or in the left hand prongs down. In the latter case the knife, not the hands, is used to help place food on the fork.

k.     When utensils are placed down prior to completing a course, the soup spoon should be placed in the four o'clock position in the plate and the knife and fork in the four and eight o'clock positions respectively with the handles off the plate when the meal or course is complete the soup spoon should be left in the six o'clock position. The knife and fork should be placed on the plate in the five o'clock position. When a spoon is used for dessert, the placing is as per the soup course. If a fork is used then it is placed as per a meat course.

m.     At a Mess Dinner or Dining In, do not ask for seconds. Also if it is not on the table, do not ask for it unless it is something such as sugar for your tea which has obviously been omitted by mistake. The absence of salt, pepper and butter at Mess Dinners is usually by design, not by accident.

n.     When speaking to the person beside or across from you, ensure that your mouth is clear and do not use the utensils to emphasize salient points of conversation, If you only keep small portions in your mouth then if asked a surprise question you will be able to answer without going into five minutes of contortions caused by the fact that you are choking and will be able to answer fairly promptly.

p.     Keep your mouth closed when chewing, The sight is not pleasant, and the sound is terrible.

q.     It is not polite to "trade" food at a Mess Dinner.

r.     If something is placed in front of you that you do not like, don't refuse it. Leave it there. If you don't like it, don't eat it. It is not necessary to mash it up. Nobody really cares whether you eat it or not.

s.     Do not take a drink unless your mouth is empty. That glass contains wine not mouthwash. If you have not tried to swallow the fillet whole, it is not required that you wash it down or lubricate your throat.

t.     Bones of a fowl may be eaten with the hands, providing that finger bowls are provided.

u.     Tooth picks are not used in public.

v.     At dinner it is usually customary to wait until your host or hostess smokes before you do so. It is in very poor taste to smoke during dinner, although it is quite acceptable to have a cigarette with your coffee. In deference to those about you, please contain your urges until then.

w.     It is not in good taste at a Mess Dinner to place your cigarettes on the table prior to the Toast to the Queen.


Example Thank You Letter

From Lieutenant H.J. Lipshitz

5 Feb '77

Dear Mrs. Jones:

Thank you very much for having me to dinner the other night. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was certainly good to see you an Major Jones after three years.

You may be interested to know that Harry Ambrose will be coming, to Brigade Headquarters as ADC to Gen Dumpy in April.

Thank you again.

Yours sincerely


Example RSVP

Former 2Lt D.B. Ells
will be happy to accept the invitation from
The Subalterns
3rd Battalion
The Royal Canadian Regiment
on
Saturday, February 5 , 1977
Wolseley Barracks Officers' Mess
at 1900 hrs

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