Customs of the Service
(Advice to those newly commissioned.)

by A.H.S.

Published at Aldershot, by Gale & Polden Ltd, 1939



1.     Like Gaul of ancient days, the Mess is divided into three parts—

It is-

(i)     The home of all “living in” officers;

(ii)     The club of every serving officer;

(iii)     The centre of social life of the station.

On the manner in which each part is conducted, the success of the whole depends: To enable the Officers' Mess to function successfully, the members of each part must conduct themselves in such a manner as not to adversely affect the efficient running of the remainder of the Mess.

2.     Officers who make their home in the Mess must remember that certain rooms and corridors are in frequent use by those whose " club " it is. It is therefore necessary that their dress outside their own living quarters should be suitable to the portion of the Mess they are using.

Similarly those who merely use the Mess as a club must realize, particularly in the evening, that they are dressed suitably for the rooms they wish to utilize.

In the Army, dinner jackets are worn on all nights except weekly guest nights (whether dinner or cold supper is served), but in the Royal Air Force undress Mess kit is worn on dinner nights and full Mess kit on guest nights. Both Services permit the wearing of lounge suits on supper nights on special occasions notified by the President of the Mess Committee.

On guest nights the wearing of full Mess kit is compulsory, and after 7.30 p.m. (on the majority of stations) the rooms in general use, such as the dining- room, ante-room, billiard-roomsand main hall, are out of bounds to officers not so dressed.

In the matter of choosing your clothes it is well to remember that you are I I an officer and a gentleman' , at all times: therefore pay the same meticulous care in the selection of your "mufti", that you would to the correctness of your uniform.

3.    By his conduct in his own and other Service Messes, an officer can bring credit, but much more quickly discredit, to himself and the Service to which he has the honour to belong. Informality in Mess may be carried too far on occasions. Nothing is more deplorable than to hear a junior officer addressing his Commanding Officer as “Old Boy." Parade-ground manners are equally out of place, but a well-mannered Mess is one where normal respect is shown to senior officers. : It is important that officers should learn the difference between servility or fawning upon their senior officers and the ordinary courtesy due to superiors in rank.

There may be certain officers whom you find difficulty in understanding or liking; do not let this in any way impair your good manners.

Civility costs nothing; it might even be a good investment later on, and is most certainly a good insurance against trouble.

This type of insurance was carried rather far by a very ancient man, known to the author, who always made a low obeisance whenever our Lord's name or Satan was mentioned during the church service. A new vicar, struck by the oddity of this and anxious to correct him, inquired after the service why he bowed when the devil was mentioned. He immediately replied: “Well, ye see, I be very , very old and civility costs nothing,” and after a pause, “and ye never know.”

4.    If your Commanding Officer or any officer of corresponding rank enters an ante-room and you areseated, always stand up.

He will ensure that you are not bothered unnecessarily in this manner, and more likely than not will prevent all present from rising by saying, " Don't get up, gentlemen, , , or something similar.

The fact that officers get to their feet even in their own home, , , the Mess, , , when their Commanding Officer enters brings home to visitors the high standard of discipline as well as the good manners of the officers concerned. Never fail to address your Commanding Officer as “Sir” even in the closer relationship which Mess life brings to all.

5.    Make visitors to your Mess feel at home; if they are unaccompanied, rise to meet them when they enter the ante-room and try and entertain them until the particular officer they are visiting arrives.

6.    Be punctual on all occasions, whether it be an appointment, a game or a meal. Nothing disorganizes a Mess more than the slovenly habit of unpunctuality. Even at that most trying meal of all, breakfast, there is no excuse for being late with the handsome margin of time usually allowed.

7.    Unless you are on the sick list, or proceeding on or returning from leave, do not visit the Mess during working hours. In nine cases out of ten you are neglecting your duty elsewhere, and everybody knows it; therefore, for , the good name of your station, do not hang around the Mess while your men are at work.

8.    If you have a dog or any other pet, take every precaution to prevent it entering the Mess. It is forbidden on a number of stations, and the owners of animals who stray into any of the Mess rooms are fined 2s. 6d. for each offence, by an efficient Mess secretary. This rule may cause you some inconvenience, but it saves friction between members, and is for the general comfort of all.

9.    There are even customs to observe carefully regarding your general conversation in mess.

Although one of the oldest traditions prohibits the discussion of "Shop" in Mess, it may be convenient to settle some Service matter in Mess, but such discussions should be limited as far as possible. Officers who have nothing to discuss except their daily routine become intolerable bores. Changed conditions have allowed a certain amount of latitude to creep in and interesting problems of the day connected with Service matters of general interest to all are permissible subjects for discussion in most Messes.

A man who has travelled extensively or had the advantages of unusual experiences is interesting and sometimes amusing as long as he does not overdo it.

However tempted you may be, do not dwell too much on your own doings; however interesting they may be to you, others are not likely to be equally interested and will look upon you as that pest of all bachelor gatherings, the "club bore."

If you wish to be popular amongst your fellow-men, learn to be a good listener, and not only will you find brother officers seeking your company, but you will be surprised how much you will learn that is useful to you.

While you are very junior, do not be too anxious to open a conversation on your own behalf with very senior officers.

The story goes that a certain sub-lieutenant, very full of his own importance when first appointed, made the mistake of breezily addressing an admiral early one morning, with a bright “Good-morning, Sir,” and received the curt reply, “Is it?”

Be of a retiring nature with very senior officers; do not give them cause to think you are "bumptious."


A wise old owl sat in an oak,
The more he heard the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard:
Oh! wasn't he a wise old bird.

Finally, never listen to or indulge in loose gossip concerning women in Mess.

Traditional chivalry of officers through the ages has forbidden this j it is up to you to keep this excellent custom, and do not let it be said that officers of to-day are less chivalrous than those of the past.

10.     There is nothing which benefits a man more, or is more enjoyable, than the right kind of drink in the right place at the right time.

Choose your drink with at least the same care that you would your food. Unless you wish to appear uneducated in these matters, never drink more than one sherry or other short drink before a meal; you will spoil your palate.

There is no traditional custom that an officer must be a heavy drinker, and there never has been.

Excessive consumption of alcohol, mainly brought about by the pernicious habit of “treating” or “standing drinks,” has been the millstone round the neck of many promising officers and their careers abruptly ended for no other reason.

By all means enjoy yourself when a special occasion justifies it, but there is no need to feel that you are obliged by custom to offer some brother officer a drink every time you enter the Mess; not only is there no such custom, but you are deliberately breaking a King's Regulation by so doing. “Standing drinks” to fellow-members of the Mess at any time is forbidden.

This does not prevent your offering a drink to a Mess guest, but to overdo hospitality by pressing additional drinks upon him, which he in nine cases out of ten does not want, is the worst form of “boorishness” and lacking in good manners.

To summarize this advice, enjoy your drink by selecting each one with care, and be moderate.

The majority of officers who take a keen interest in their profession do not take any alcoholic drink until their day's duty has ended.

Young officers would do well to form this habit at the commencement of their career; those who do are likely to go farther than the remainder.

11.     Hospitality extended to individual members by, local residents and others is not infrequently returned, by a garden party, dance or other social entertainment in the Mess. On these occasions remember that every member of the Mess is a host; it is up to each one to see that no guest is neglected.

Do not spend the entire evening with your own partner, or even your own party.

You have another personal responsibility: that is, to remember that “by their friends ye shall know them,” and pick your guest with care that will safe- guard both yourself and the Mess from any possible adverse criticism.

12.     The official dinner in Mess (as opposed to the meal on supper nights) is a parade. It is equally serious to be late for dinner as it would be to arrive late for the morning parade on the parade ground.

All officers assemble about ten minutes before the hour fixed for dinner, in the ante-room.

It is customary for every officer on arrival to go up to the senior officer present at the time and say “Good evening, Sir.” Do not overdo this by loud clicking of the heels, or I have even seen the inexperienced make a low bow, both entirely unnecessary and out of place.

You will find most officers taking sherry or some other short drink: remember the advice previously given in this chapter.

Unless the ante-room is a very large one filled with a considerable number of officers, you are likely to find yourself close to your Commanding Officer some time before dinner. If you have not already done so, it is customary to say “Good evening, Sir,” but quite unnecessary to make a point of crossing the room to do so if you have already paid your respects to another senior officer on your arrival.

When dinner is announced, and if no guests are present, the President of the day moves into the dining-room, followed by the other officers, but not necessarily in order of seniority.

If the President is not the senior officer present, it is customary for him to ask whoever is senior if he is ready to precede him in to dinner.

When guests are invited there is a difference, Guests go in to dinner in order of precedence, each accompanied by his host irrespective of rank.

On arrival in the dining-room, officers stand behind their chairs until every officer is present; then grace is said by the Chaplain, if there is one, failing which this duty is sometimes undertaken by the President of the day. Everyone then seats himself at table.

Should an officer be unfortunate enough to be late for dinner, he must immediately on entering the dining-room, before proceeding to his chair, go straight to the President of the day and offer some suitable apology .This will not, however, save him from incurring his Commanding Officer's displeasure.

One of the oldest traditional customs of the Service forbids officers to mention a lady's name at the Mess table, or indulge in jokes which are detrimental to women. It is a fallacy that a breach of this rule can be wiped out by the President ordering a round of drinks against the offender.

Towards the end of dinner, one or more decanters of port are placed in front of the President; having removed the stoppers, he passes the decanters to his left and in turn each officer, after helping himself, passes the port to the left until it eventually returns to where it started from. Not at any time or for any purpose may an officer pass the port to his right.

The custom which necessitatedevery officer drinking His Majesty fl1e King's health in port is no longer enforced; as long as an officer's glass is filled, to enable him to join in the toast, it is immaterial whether it contains port, sherry or water.

Having filled your own glass, it is necessary to pass that decanter and those which may follow at once to your left; on no account delay the circulation of the port for conversation, or other reasons.

Every glass being now filled, the President knocks once on the table for silence; he then stands and,addressing the Vice-President of the day, says, “Mr. Vice, The King,” The Vice-President then stands and, addressing all present, says, “Gentlemen, The King.” All then stand, and if a band is in attendance, the first six bars of the National Anthem are played, while all officers stand to attention; on conclusion, lifting their glasses from the table, all officers together repeat the toast, “The King,” and drink His Majesty's health. (Some Regiments in the Army have a slightly different procedure when drinking the King's health and leaving the table.) All present then sit down and conversation is resumed. When a band is not in attendance, all officers rise to their feet, pick up their glasses and repeat the toast “The King”, and then drink His Majesty's health.

At this point dessert and coffee are served, and the President commences the circulation of the port decanters for the second time and either says, “Gentlemen, you may smoke,” or indicates his permission by lighting a cigarette himself. Officers and guests may not smoke until such permission has been given.

To indicate that dinner is concluded and those officers who wish to leave the table may do so, the President will stand for the second time. If an officer for purposes connected with duty or any other urgent reason desires to leave the dinner table before such indication has been given, he must walk round to the President and ask for permission to leave.

After dinner, however you choose to occupy yourself or whatever hilarity you indulge in, never forget that you are an officer.

As the Mess is your home, it is reasonably polite to remain until your official guests have left.

It is customary not to leave the Mess for your quarters until the Commanding Officer, or whoever on the particular occasion was representing him, has gone home or given special permission for you to do so.

13.     In conclusion to this chapter, officers are given the following warnings against breaches of Mess etiquette :-

(i)     Never invite a guest to dine without first seeking the permission of the President of the Mess Committee.

(ii)     Never take a warrant officer, non-commissioned officer, soldier or airman into the Mess.

(iii)     Never take a lady into any part of the Mess other than that set apart for their use.

(iv)     Do not introduce religious or political subjects into conversation in the Mess.

(v)     Refrain from adverse criticism of your senior officers in Mess.

(vi)     Young officers when they first join a unit should refrain from flaunting their unit tie, blazer, etc. They should wait until they have proved themselves worthy to wear it.

(vii)     Never curse Mess servants; it is not clever and they cannot stand up for them- selves without danger of dismissal. Make any complaint you have to the Mess Secretary , who will take proper steps to deal with it.

(viii)     A curious custom, or rather habit, has grown amongst junior officers of treating Mess property in a most light-hearted manner. This is not only extremely foolish but ill-mannered and objected to by all other members of the Mess. Show the same respect to Mess property that you would to that in your own home or the house of friends.