Notes for Commanding Officers; Issued to Students At The Senior Officers' School, Aldershot, 1917. (5th Course.)

August, 1917.

An Address to the Senior Officers on the Role and the Responsibilities of the Commanding Officer in a Battalion Mess

By The Commandant.

The general state and efficiency of a Regiment can be quickly gauged by the tone and bearing of its Officers when in their Mess. It is the duty of a Commanding Officer to first set the standard of life and then to insist on his Officers living up to that standard. The Commanding Officer who does so is correctly interpreting one of the many responsibilities that are his and his alone.

Before the War.

I think perhaps there is a tendency on the part of Commanding Officer, and a tendency that is not unnatural in these days, to overlook the traditions and customs of the Mess of the British Army and the importance generally that the Mess plays in the life of a Regiment. In the pre-war days the Soul of the Regiment, so to speak, could be found in the ante-room or dining-room of an Officers' Mess, and from the Officers gathered together in one or other of those rooms emanated the tone and standard of life of every individual of the Regiment. If their conversation or their. actions generally were not all that could be desired, the effect was evident throughout the Regiment, the sergeants, then the corporals, and then the privates taking their standard and example from their Officers, and living well up to that standard and example, whether it was a high or low one.

A stranger in the old days walking into the anteroom of a Regiment in which were seated a number of Officers could at a glance gauge the standard of life and the tone generally of that Regiment. If they immediately got up from their seats and received him as one gentleman should receive another coming into his house for the first time; if their conversation revealed a proper tone and spirit; if their appearance generally was what the appearance of Officers should be—the stranger, without doubt, left the Mess with the impression that he had just left a Regiment in which the Officers were gentlemen, and who were all maintaining the best traditions of the Officer class of His Majesty's Army. And he would be perfectly justified in deciding off-hand that the tone and general standard of all ranks of that Regiment probably approached the same standard set by its Officers.

If, on the contrary, he had been coldly received; if the Officers remained seated with the exception, perhaps, of one young subaltern, who, being a gentleman himself, knew at any rate what his rôle was on such an occasion and stood up and alone welcomed the visitor; if their conversation disclosed a bad tone and a bad spirit; if, in addition, they were standing each other drinks in their own Mess; and if their appearance was not at all in keeping with what the stranger—himself an Officer —was accustomed to in his own Regiment; and if, finally, the general appearance of the ante-room was more in keeping with that of the smoking-room of second-class provincial club than with that of the ante-room of a British Regiment—the stranger would be equally justified in coming to the decision that he was in the Mess of a Regiment in which the tone and general standard was decidedly not in accordance with the best traditions of the British Officer, and he would be equally justified in assuming: that a similar state of things, e.g., bad tone and a low standard of life and discipline, probably existed throughout the whole Regiment.

In a word, the Officers' Mess in the pre-war days set the standard of life for the Regiment, and its general state and efficiency varied, according as the tone was good or had in that Mess. And this being the case before the Great War, it is interesting to turn to the situation to-day, and to see whether those sound principles and rules of Mess life, which meant so much to us all, and which were so highly prized by all the Officers of the Old Regular Army, still hold the same position and carry the same weight in the Battalions of not only the Old Regular Army, but of every Battalion, no matter to what Army, viz., New, Territorial, or Overseas, that Battalion may belong.

The Situation To-Day.

The Notes, Lectures, and Addresses contained in this Book deal particularly with the present day situation, and it is therefore essential that we should here concentrate on the Mess question as it presents itself to us, and show how it bears on the tone and standard of each individual unit. As one who derives great pleasure in getting to know—really getting to know—the Officers of every branch and arm of the service, I can only tell you that in the course of my visits to the Messes of other Regiments—in all of which I am bent on making friends —I have found a very marked difference in the tone and standard of the various Officers' Messes I have chanced to visit. On entering the billet, in which perhaps the Headquarters Mess or a Company Mess may have been installed, 1 have been received in both the manners described above, and as a result of my reception I have been able to sum up very quickly the general state of the Regiment. It will, if I enumerate the essential factors in preserving in the Officers' Messes a proper tone, perhaps help me to make my points, and also help you whom I am addressing when you find yourselves in command of one or other of those splendid Battalions of our Army in France, to conduct your Messes in the manner which before the war was traditional of the best Regiments of our Army. I therefore do so.

Mess Rules.

In every Battalion there should be Mess Rules in print, a copy of which should be given to every Officer on joining. The nature of these Rules for a Battalion on service in the Field must vary according to the circumstances in which the Battalion finds itself placed, but the Mess Rules of this School which are attached to this paper are a sample of what is usual for a Battalion serving under peace conditions. It is impracticable for all these Rules to be observed on Service, but it is the duty of any Commanding Officer serving with a Battalion in the field to see that the spirit of such Rules are observed by his Officers as far as the conditions ting at the time permit. The mere drawing up and issuing of Orders, Rules, or Regulations is a waste of time if the matter is not pursued further. It is the duty and rôle of the Commanding Officer to see that his orders are observed, and this can only be provided he himself takes a live and active part in ensuring that they are. I now propose to take and discuss in detail each of the things that matter in the proper conduct of an Officers' Mess.

The Bearing of the Officers of a Regiment Towards Strangers.

First and foremost the Officers should realise the importance of knowing what their duties are, whether in a Battalion or a Company Mess, when a stranger enters their billet. Those who remain seated or silent create a bad impression, whereas those who immediately get up and say "Good-morning" or "Good afternoon"—adding the word "sir" if the stranger, be he soldier or civilian, is senior in rank or years—and follow it up by asking the stranger if he will not sit down, or what they can do for him and who, if a meal is just about to commence, invite him to stay and join them, create a very good impression. I have already told you that I have often entered Messes, both Battalion and Company, and found the two situations as described, and I have left with the impression that each created so firmly in my mind that I do not hesitate to emphasise to you the importance of giving your Officers very clear direction as to their duties in this respect and to ask you to do all in your power to put them on the right lines.

The offering of hospitality, or, rather, the manner and method of offering hospitality, will reveal the tone of the Mess. There are certain Officers who are under the impression that if a stranger entered an Officers' Mess in the pre-war days he could not be permitted to leave it until at least two or three drinks been ordered and drank; or if he accepted an invitation to dine he could not be said to have really dined unless he had drunk a great deal more than he really wished to. Certainly there were one or two isolated cases of Regiments in which the Officers drank a good deal more than was good either for themselves or for the reputation of the Service, and in which the standing of each other drinks was permitted and encouraged. A stranger dining in such a Mess probably had to fight hard to avoid drinking more than the two or three glasses of wine he wanted during dinner, and afterwards the mild fight at the dining table probably developed into a real battle against the whiskies and sodas in the billiard-room. It is not true hospitality to force it on your guests, and whenever I meet with an Officer who persists in trying to force me to take that which I neither require or desire, the opinion I form of him and of his Regiment is generally an adverse one. Make your Officers realise that in asking an Officer to dine and sending him away in a semi-drunken condition they are doing both their own Regiment and their guest a grave injury, the after effects of which are often at the moment not considered. No Regiment in which the Officers systematically conduct their Mess on these lines can ever be regarded as an efficient Regiment. Teach your Officers to receive strangers as they would receive them in their own homes, and this, I assure you, is all that we aim at in the Mess life of the British Army.

The Bearing of the Officers of a Regiment Towards Each Other.

It is traditional of the old Regular Army that the Officers, when meeting each other in their own Mess, unbend, so to speak, and, with certain exceptions, treat each other more or less as equals. So it should be in the case of every Regiment to-day, and this address to you aims at effecting this. In my Regiment it is the custom for every Officer to address each other by their Christian or any nickname each may have, the only exception being the Commanding Officer, who, though applying the same principle to all his officers, is himself invariably addressed as "Sir" or "Colonel." — Similarly the Second-in-Command is invariably addressed as "Sir" or "Major," but all other Majors are, so far as this point is concerned, addressed as Dick, Tom, or Harry, and the result of it all is we find in this the framework of a form of Mess life which suggests from the start the "happy family." Contrast this Mess with one in which the strictest formality is the order of the day; where the etiquette of the parade ground is carried right into the dining-room; where the Colonel is continually referring to his Officers as Mr. "So-and-So"; where it is nothing but Major "This" and Major "That"; where at dinner an Officer who wants perhaps the salt, to his neighbour, "Mr. Jones, will you please pass the salt?" If you do contrast this Regiment with the other, I do not think that there is any doubt as to which is the most comfortable to live in, and when we are aiming to-day at keeping everybody merry and bright there is no doubt that every Commanding Officer should, and must, ensure that the Mess life of his Officers is conducted on the lines of the former rather than on those of the latter. But because I suggest to you the desirability of beating down all formality in the Mess, I do not for one moment suggest that the Senior Officers of a Regiment are not entitled to the respect. their rank and years demand, and the younger Officers, when in the presence of their seniors, will do well not to assert themselves too much, either in their conversation or in their general attitude and bearing. For instance, it is not a good thing for the Junior Officers to possess themselves of all the comfortable chairs in a billet whilst their senior stand, or to take possession of every paper in the Mess with their Commanding Officer standing by and waiting for something to read, or to take the only pack of card and table available for a rubber of bridge, without asking, perhaps, the Second-in-Command or the Senior Officers present if they desire to play.

These are points of ordinary common politeness which will in good Regiments always be remembered, and which go hand in hand with the happy family type of Mess. My only other remark under this heading is the duty the Officers of a Mess (Regimental or Company) owe to each other in the matter of their personal cleanliness and appearance and behaviour in Mess. To sit down to table next to an Officer who has omitted to brush his hair, to wash—really wash—his hands, or, after the day's work, to change his clothes, is not pleasant, and does not make for harmony. I suggest to you that it is your duty, or the duty of your Second-in-Command, to see that your Officers comport themselves correctly in this respect, and I know that many of them will only do so provided you yourselves give them direction and friendly advice on the lines they should go. Again, to see an Officer who obviously does not know how to use his knife and fork, or what to do with his napkin if he has one, is not an inspiring spectacle, neither is this conducive to the good tone all of us desire to see throughout the Officers' Messes of our Imperial Army. Many Commanding Officers, however, permit these breaches of etiquette to go unchecked, and yet they are the first to cry out and bemoan the habits and general behaviour in Mess of the young Officer of to-day.

The General State of a Mess.

I do not think anyone will disagree with me when I say, that to enter a room occupied as a Mess, and to find it in a very dirty and untidy state, depresses one at once and lowers the Moral. It is the old story of endeavouring to raise the tone of the working classes while condemning them at the same time to live in the worst surroundings and under the most adverse conditions. It cannot be done. To raise the tone of their conversation and their general standard of living, you must first of all get them to live under conditions more nearly approximating to our own conditions of life. So it is in the Army. If we would see a high standard of life and the best traditions of the Old British Army observed in this respect, we must first of all ensure that the Officers are living as gentlemen and in a manner befitting those who hold His Majesty's Commission. This will not be if you Commanding Officers permit your own Messes to be run on squalid lines and your young Officers to follow your example. Therefore I say to you, "See to the points that matter; see to it that your Mess appurtenances are sufficient in quantity, and of the right quality; see to it that the tablecloths are clean, and that the knives, forks, spoons and plates are equally clean; do not permit your servants to lay a dirty and untidy table, or to appear themselves at your table in a dirty, unshaved, and untidy state; and, above all, see to it that your Mess-rooms in billets have at all times a bright and cheerful appearance." It makes such a difference to the temper, mood and Moral of the Officers of a Battalion when they are living in a well-appointed and well-kept Mess, as compared to when they are living in dirty, squalid and cheerless surroundings. Flowers are a great help. On me they have the same effect as music does; they raise my Moral, and all through my period of command in France, both in billets and in headquarters in the front line, my Mess servants had orders to get flowers whenever possible for the Mess table. Remember that the example you set in your Headquarters mess will be immediately imitated by your Company Commanders, and the Company Messes will be good or bad according to the standard set in the Headquarters Mess in this particular respect, and so I ask you to ensure that none of the points referred to under this heading are ever lost sight of.

The Mess Staff.

First and foremost comes the choice of a Mess President. I do not propose to lay down any hard and fast rule on this subject, because I have met Regiments in France in which the Mess President's duties have been filled, and filled well, by the Second-in-Command, the Padre, the Medical Officer, and the Transport Officer. All I do say is this: Whomever you do select, impress on him the importance you attach to the appointment, and make him realise that the successful and satisfactory performance of his duties will add much to the general happiness and comfort of the whole of your Officers, and very greatly assist them in the performance of their work. Make him realise this, and if at the same time you give him your ideas on what you consider should be the lines on which an Officers' Mess should be conducted, you will ensure success from the very commencement of his appointment. You will find that according to the importance which you attach to, and the interest you take in, the Mess President and duties, so will you find your own Mess and the Company Messes conducted. Take an interest in him, and all will be well; disregard him, and nothing will go right.

Next to the Mess President comes the Mess Sergeant. This individual, who should be well chosen, is essential for the proper conduct of the Regimental Mess, and with out him a Mess President will always find it difficult to carry on. I have known cases where the Mess President has endeavored to carry on without one, and he has made good up to a certain point, but sooner or later the want of such an individual has been felt, and a good deal of inconvenience and discomfort caused in consequence. I therefore strongly urge you to keep this appointment and to select the most suitable man you have in your Battalion for the duties: If you yourself will take the same interest in him as you do in your Mess President, and will let him know and see the importance you attach to a correct standard of living, and to proper surroundings in an Officers' Mess, he will repeat your words to his staff, viz., the Cook, Kitchen Man, and Waiters, and all will strive with him to study your wishes, because they know what you think and feel regarding Messes generally and your own in particular. Above all, insist on the staff being adequate in numbers and do not for a moment expect anything but dirt, discomfort, and general dissatisfaction if your Mess President, either because of economy of purse or men, attempts to run the Mess with an insufficient staff. A Mess Sergeant, a Cook, a Kitchen Man, and one good Waiter are absolutely essential in a Headquarters Mess and do not let the number of your Mess staff go below this.

Standard of Living.

Now let us discuss for a few moments what should be the proper standard of living in an Officers' Mess. There are a certain number of Officers who have their stomachs lined with the same material as the inside of the lady who was 60 cubits long and 30 cubits wide in Liutenant-General Sir Henry Wilson's storv. [Footnoted - An amusing story told by Lieut.-General Sir H.H. Wilson, K.C.B., when addressing the Senior Officers on "Our Friends and Enemies in the War." August, 1917.] viz., tar and pitch, and no matter what you put in front of them they will pass it down and be perfectly satisfied with the situation. And as long as these officers themselves are perfectly satisfied with this fare, and confine their disregard of what goes into their stomachs to themselves, all is well, When, however, they presume to dictate to the rest of the Officers that their stomachs should be able to submit to the same hard usage as their own, and not only dictate bit insist, then we at once find a most uncomfortable, unpleasant, and falsely economical Mess: By the expression "falsely economical," I mean that the Officer in question thinks Officers to live on their rations, and to put badly-cooked food into their stomachs, he is economising and making it simple and easy for his Officers to live. Well, he certainly is economising from the financial point of view, but in insisting on a standard of living that is well below that to which many of them are accustomed, he affects the health of some of his Officers, and because bad health leads to loss of Moral, he is really economising financially at the expense of Moral, and this is practising a very false economy. If our Officers are insufficiently fed and are living under depressing conditions, their health will certainly suffer, and with the loss of health comes irritation, loss of temper, and weak Moral, and when this state of things prevails we all know that the men frequently suffer. I have personally lived in many Messes, and have by design and on principle had many a meal in many other Messes (Army, Corps, Divisional, Brigade, Battalion, Battery, and Company), and I definitely state that in those Messes in which the Senior Officer has that peculiar stomach and those ideas of living, a general air of depression has been manifest throughout the meal. Listen to this:—Bully-Beef, Biscuit, Cheese, and Butter, washed down with Tea, as opposed to Soup, Saumon Mayonnaise, Filet de Beeuf aux Champignons, Péche Melba, Sardines au Croft, washed down with Heidsick (Triple sec), 1906, followed by a cup of Coffee, a glass of Old Brandy, and a "Bon Cigare." You can picture the two types of Messes, and you can almost scent the air of depression in the one, and hear the laughter in the other, with its Commanding Officer and his Officers all full of life and "bonnes histoires." Take my advice, gentlemen, and have nothing to do with the "Bully-Beef" set. Live well yourselves and enjoy your food and make all your young Officers do likewise, and above all invite your General, not one, but frequently, to dinner, and see to it that you do him well. Should he be disposed to soda water rather than a glass of champagne, arrange by mere chance that there is nothing to drink except champagne! When in close touch with big towns, like Amiens, Boulogne, Doullens, Ypres, etc., see that your Mess President does not forget the fact, and when out of touch then have a standing order with Fortnum and Mason, of Piccadilly, or other equally well-known firm of "Moral-Ralsers," to supply you with some of the good things that still come to these shores, in spite of the "Hun" and his "Hunnish " devices.

Conclusion.

I have nothing further to add, except this: I trust that I have not, in advocating a standard of living which may appear to some to be not quite in, keeping with the times in which we are living, created the impression that I am of the opinion that unless an Officer is eating the richest of food and drinking champagne he cannot carry on his duties in a manner both satisfactory to himself and his Regiment. Nothing is further from my mind, and I hope that no Officer who reads this address will take that impression away with him. I am, however, desirous of drawing attention to the danger of Officers living in surroundings that are not in keeping with the surroundings of the Officer class of His Majesty's Army, and of accepting fare that is altogether different to that to which many of them have been accustomed, and I hope that I have succeeded. The Commanding Officer who, because his Regiment is on Active Service, thinks and lays down that everybody must live on his rations and in discomfort is a dangerous type, and although, I will admit, he is ignorant of the fact, still he does an immense amount of harm to the Moral of his Regiment.

The British Officer will live on anything—even down to acorns and black beetles—should the occasion demand it. But, gentlemen, the occasion has not yet called for such sacrifice on our part, and until it does I say live well, and in the Mess Regulations of your Regiment let the following formulæ occupy a very prominent position:—

Bully Beef
Hard Biscuit
Plum and Apple Jam
Tea and
Virginia Cigarettes
Produce
(partaken in silence)
Stomach Ache
Indigestion
Irritation of Mind
Depression
Pessimism and
Weak Moral
and
A BAD SHOW.
Whereas—
Consommé
Salmon Mayonnaise
Filet de Bœuf aux Champignons
Pêche Melba
Sardines au Croute
Heidsick, 1906
A Glass of Old Brandy and a Corona
Produce
(to the strains of the Battalion Orchestra)
Contentment of Mind.
Peace with all Men except the Hun.
Bonnes Histoires.
Mirth.
Laughter.
Optimism and Strong Moral.
and
A GOOD SHOW.

[The above is a simple dinner that any Mess President should be able to produce for his officers, and it is a menu that I have enjoyed during the hardest times in France, both as a Battalion and as a Company Commander: at the time my men were getting all that human power could get them e.g.. their rations, plenty of beer, a good Regimental Supper Bar, and every drop of RUM obtainable, and everyone—officers and men—were in good heart and merry and bright in consequence, even during the hardest days of the Second Battle of YPRES.]

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