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

by A.H.S.

Published at Aldershot, by Gale & Polden Ltd, 1939


Social Responsibilities

31.     Meticulous observance of all matters connected with the social side of Service life is not only essential if the Service is to take its proper place in the esteem of the country, but it forms an integral part of Service life.

In these democratic days, to lay down any rigidly fixed law on social matters is skating on very thin ice.

There are different schools of thought on many of the minor details of etiquette, and a divergence of opinion as to what is customary and what is not customary.

The aim must therefore be to state what principles are accepted by the majority and hope that these may be co-ordinated in the Services in spite of the criticism of those who have other views.

Young officers who comply with social customs will make numerous friends and find themselves invited to picnics, shoots, dinners and dances; others will finds themselves isolated in the Mess with few friends.


32.     In order to promote that friendly spirit which should exist on every Service station, the custom of "calling" is a duty which every officer is expected to observe. It is one of the principal means whereby all the personnel, including families of officers, get to know each other.

Furthermore, it is the only entree into the social life of the station.

33.     The newly commissioned officer's first call will be upon the Officers' Mess of the station where he takes up his first appointment.

The procedure is the same as calling on any Officers' Mess in any of the three Services, and is described in the following paragraph.

34.     When visiting any Officers' Mess for the first time in any of the three Services, an officer must leave two of his visiting cards in the main hall. One is intended for the Officer Commanding the unit or station, the second for the other officers.

Write on the top of the first card, above your own name, the rank and name (include any decorations to which the officer is entitled) of the Commanding Officer, and directly underneath put "commanding ......................," inserting the unit or station commanded by the officer concerned.

On the second card write at the top "The Officers" and directly beneath this the unit or station concerned.

If information is required as to the name or decorations of the Commanding Officer, ring for a Mess waiter and request him to obtain the necessary information for you.

35.     The young officer, having left cards on his new Mess, will now call upon the senior officer of the station at the earliest opportunity (unless, of course, this officer lives in the Mess). In the majority of cases he will be a married man, and the following advice may be used as a guide when calling upon him and the remainder of the married officers.

Remember these are social calls, and do not wear a sports jacket and grey flannels; a lounge suit should be worn. Never pay a call in uniform.

Laxity is slowly creeping in and nowadays junior officers do not object to your calling between 5.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. or to calls on Saturdays and Sundays.

It is primarily the wife on whom one calls, and therefore, when the door is opened, inquire whether Mrs. So-and-so is at home.

"At home" means, when translated, "is she receiving visitors," so should you be informed that the lady upon whom you are calling is "not at home," leave two cards; one of these is for the wife and the second is for the husband. On no account ask if the husband is "at home" after you have received the indication that "visitors are not being received." Leave your cards and go.

If the person being called upon is "at home," give your name so that it may be announced to your hostess; at the same time, hat, stick and overcoat should be handed to the servant.

Do not remain longer than twenty minutes, and should you be invited to tea or other refreshment, make some excuse ten minutes afterwards to make your exit, leaving your two cards on the hall table as you go out.

On occasions when no reply is received after ringing the door bell it is permissible to drop two cards though the letter-box; but it is a breach of etiquette to call when you know full well the people you are calling upon are away from their house.

Similarly, it is incorrect to inquire from your host or hostess whether they will be "at home" if you call on any particular day; you may unnecessarily interfere with arrangements already made. Custom demands that you take a chance in these matters.

Unless the station is exceptionally large, calls should be completed within the first fourteen days of arrival.

36.     In the event of your being married, on arrival at a station for the first time, you will leave cards upon the Officers' Mess, but from then onwards the "calls" become your wife's affair. She will undertake all calls for you, but in addition to leaving two of your cards she leaves one of her own.

The general custom in this country is for the newcomer to call upon the wife of the senior officer only; the wives already on the station then call upon her.

She will in her turn, of course, call upon all wives who arrive at any date subsequent to her own arrival.

This is the general guiding principle, but circumstances on some stations may necessitate a slight variation of this. Officers, on arrival, should obtain from the Adjutant or Mess Secretary confirmation that normal procedure is being followed, and a list of those upon whom calls should be made.

37.     Should occasion arise that a bachelor has to be called upon, the officer (even if married) must call and only one card will be left.

38.     On being transferred to another station (unless the move is temporary), before you leave it is necessary to call again upon all those you have previously called upon, but on this occasion write the letters P.P.C. in the bottom left-hand corner of all cards. (For information, this stands for Pour prendre conge.)

If time does not permit all these calls to be completed, it is permissible to send the remainder by post, but they must be accompanied by a short note of apology.

39.     After the first formal call, do not leave cards on any occasion until you leave your P.P.C. cards. It is no longer the custom to pay a formal call again after receiving hospitality, except on special occasions such as after State functions or a dinner given by a Governor-General abroad.

40.     Every Officers' Mess has a visitors' book in the main entrance hall, and when local residents call it is important that they should sign this. It is always the man who does so; the Mess being a bachelor establishment, his wife cannot call. In returning such a call, this fact must be remembered and one card must be left as for a bachelor, irrespective of whether he is married or not.

Not less than two officers of the Mess should be detailed by the President of the Mess Committee to return such calls, leaving one of the Mess cards and one of each of their own. These calls may be made between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on any day other than Saturday or Sunday, but at no other time.

41.     Within a week of a bachelor calling on a married officer and his wife, the husband should leave one of his cards in the letter rack of the bachelor officer making the call. This is merely an acknowledgement of the call, and should be followed as soon as possible by an invitation to partake of some form of hospitality at the house on which the call was made.

42.     When a newly arrived wife has been called upon by another, who was on the station at the time of her arrival, she must acknowledge this by returning her call formally and leaving cards before fourteen days have elapsed, if possible.

43.     Cards must be of the correct size (3 x 1½ in.) and of the first quality.

Do not commit the error of having cards "printed" at any old stationers, thinking no one will know.

Your name must be engraved from a copper plate. The difference is apparent at once to the touch; the writing can be felt on a card made from plate, whereas the ordinary printed card will feel smooth.

Officers below the rank of Captain in the Army or Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force do not show their rank on their card, but have "Mr." Prefixed to their names.

The engraving must be done in the style known as "copperplate," and below the name, in smaller script, the regiment or corps in the case of Army officers and for an Air Force officer "Royal Air Force" is added.

Decorations must not appear on a visiting card, and there must be no other wording unless the officer is a member of a recognized club, when the name of such club may be inserted in small script in the bottom left-hand corner. (A sports club does not come within the category of recognized clubs.)

Fancy cards, such as those with gilt edges, and fancy printing or any printing other than copperplate, must not be used.


44.     Invitations fall under two headings-formal and informal- and must be answered in the form in which they are issued; that is a formal invitation must be answered formally, an informal one informally.

Etiquette demands that all invitations should be answered at once, to enable the host or hostess to make the necessary arrangements.

An invitation once accepted must not be declined subsequently, except for reasons over which one has no control, such as serious illness or unavoidable absence on duty.

45.     Formal invitations are couched in the third person and may be either written or printed.

The following example is the most general form:—

46.     Such invitations must be answered formally in the third person. Example:—

Mr. J. Smith has much pleasure in accepting the kind invitation of the Commanding Officer and Officers of the A.B.C. Unit to dinner on the 1st of January 1941.

Or if refusal is necessary, after Mr. J. Smith amend this to read "regrets he is unable to accept."

The address of the officer replying to the invitation and the date should be written in the bottom left-hand corner of the sheet, and the envelope addressed in the invitation.

47.     It is important that the decorations of officers issuing invitations should not appear on the invitation card, but those of the guest invited should be inserted.

In replying always insert in your reply any decorations to which your host may be entitled, but do not insert your own.

48.     If you receive an informal invitation, reply in the same form. For example:—


Many thanks for your kind invitation to dinner on January 1st. I shall be delighted to come.

Yours sincerely,




I am sorry I cannot accept your kind invitation to dinner on January 1st, as I have unfortunately, another engagement that evening.

Yours sincerely,



49.     After staying with friends, even if only for one night, it is not only courteous but essential to write a letter of thanks for their hospitality. These are commonly known as "Bread-and-Butter letters."

Before taking your departure, a gratuity should be given to servants. Circumstances vary, but as a general rule the tip may be left on the dressing table. Half a crown is the minimum tip for a bachelor whether for only one night or for a week-end.


50.     In addressing envelopes, it is courteous to find out whether the recipient is entitled to any letters after his name, and to address the envelope accordingly, For example-


Care is necessary, however, as certain symbols are shown after an officer's name in the Air Force (and other) Lists which should not appear on letters: for example, p.s.a, p.s.c, and i.d.c

If one is uncertain of the exact decorations or cannot ascertain them, it is better to omit them altogether than to put such things as "D.S.O., etc." After the name. This looks slovenly and infers that the writer knows that the recipient has some decorations, but is too lazy to look up the official list to ascertain what they are.

51.     When corresponding privately with senior officers-that is with officers whom one normally addresses as "Sir" in course of conversation, it is to use the formula "Dear Sir" and end "Yours faithfully," no matter how senior the officer may be. This formula and its variants are reserved for business letters.

The correct mode of address will depend upon how well knows the officer. If he is a complete stranger or if one only knows him very slightly, one should (provided he has no title) address him by his rank and name, as, for example:—

"Dear Air Vice-Marshal Brown."


"Dear Wing Commander Black."

If, on the other hand, one knows the officer well, the name may be omitted and he may be addressed simply by his rank, as-

"Dear Air Vice-Marshal."


"Dear Wing Commander."

When, however, the officer has a title, there are three ways of addressing him, given below in descending order of formality-

"Dear Air Chief Marshal Sir John Smith,"

"Dear Air Chief Marshall,

"Dear Sir John."

The first is so formal and cumbersome that it is very rarely used, whereas the third is only used if one knows the officer very well indeed. The second is usually the best form.

In all letters the rank must be written in full and abbreviations such as G/Capt. or A.V.M. are not permissible. (It is incorrect at any time to abbreviate in any manner an Air Force officer's rank.) The letter should end "Yours sincerely" or "Yours very sincerely," never "Yours faithfully," "Yours truly" or "Yours obediently."


52.     Introductions do not present the difficulties alleged by some; the main points to remember are

A gentleman is introduced to a lady;

A Single woman to a married woman;

A younger to an older man;

A junior to a senior;

In making the introductions the names of both parties should be given clearly: for example-

"Wing Commander Brown, may I introduce Flight Lieutenant Black"


"Mrs. Green, may I introduce Wing Commander Brown."

It is usual for both parties to the introduction to remark "How do you do, Flight Lieutenant Black, or Mr. So-and-so," with a suitable reply from the junior such as "How do you do, Sir" (or "Mrs. Green"), not out of any solicitude as to the health or well-being of the other, but merely as a conversational intimation that the introduction has been effected. It is incorrect to pass any remark as to one's health or, worse still, pleasure at meeting the other person, such as "I am very well, thank you," or I'm pleased to meet you."

On guest nights one's private guests should be introduced to the Commanding Officer as early in the evening as convenient.

At formal dances, although every member of the Mess is a host in many respects, the Commanding Officer and his wife act as formal host and hostess and introductions are accordingly effected when guests are presented on arrival.

At informal dances, although the Commanding Officer and his wife may not be the host and hostess, it is only courteous to take one's guest to them and make the necessary introductions.