The Subaltern's Court

By Capt Michael O'Leary, The RCR

Disclaimer: use of male gender pronouns may be taken to include their female peers, etc., etc., etc.


There was once a time when subalterns struggled with their competing financial commitments to purchase Mess Dress and swords, pay Mess bills, pursue young ladies of their acquaintance and also to maintain an image of being bold and generous in spending within their peer group. All of this was done, of course, on the subaltern's meagre pay, which could often mean he was the lowest paid member of his own platoon. Long gone are the days of young officers being expected to join a regiment with a private income; an income which might dictate in which regiment or corps he might be able to afford the Mess life.

A subbie's joie de vivre could easily be overwhelmed by regimentally mandated expenses, the costs of Mess functions, and the occasional monthly bar tab that was larger than his pay. In light of such financial challenges, subalterns eagerly sought opportunities to imbibe at the expense of those senior officers who had much more generous pay envelopes. As they learned to navigate the many mysteries and pitfalls of life as a junior officer, so too they quickly learned which senior officers were most inclined to be generous (under the right circumstances) because they recalled their own days of privation as young officers.

Once the case against the accused has been presented by the Prosecutor, and an ineffective defence offered by the accused, the President shall, briefly, consider the facts of the case and pronounce a finding of "Guilty."

A few of the more traditional methods of transferring the wealth of senior officers to the subalterns in the form of alcohol could be found at regimental Mess Dinners. There was and is, of course, the port wine drunk at the end of the dinner. Purchased as part of the meal costs for the Loyal, regimental and other toasts, it was normally expected that a few decanters' worth of port would always be left on the table. This has traditionally been viewed as a boon to the subbies, though perhaps less welcome in recent years due to an increasing ability of the subalterns to meet their expenses, and have sufficient disposable income to spurn a bad port and purchase better libations for themselves.

At the end of each Mess Dinner, when the Commanding Officer, honoured guests, and officers of the rank of Captain and above retired to the bar, the subalterns remained at the table and consumed the dregs of what was often a cheap and nasty port wine. There is perhaps an explanation to be found here for the poor quality of port which has followed so many Mess Dinners. A bad port will be met with little desire and low consumption by those officers who will soon meet the bar, leaving proportionately more in the decanters for the subalterns to 'enjoy.' (However, when many young officers are quite prepared to wait and buy themselves a decent drink, that explanation fails to justify bad port today. Perhaps it is time to abolish that failed tradition and serve better port to all.)

As the subalterns lounged around the Mess Table imbibing the remaining port, minds were at work devising new and entertaining ways to get more alcohol at the expense of those with more than a Lieutenant's salary. It was in this forum that the idea of a Subalterns' Court was most likely devised.

The Subalterns' Court

The Subalterns' Court, or Subbies' Court, was based on the young officers' collective experience with, and study of, the military justice system. The Court offered a means by which hopefully amenable senior officers could be brought before the junior officers of the regiment to have their 'crimes' identified and, as appropriate, punishments awarded in terms of rounds of drinks for the subalterns. Good-humoured and hopefully amenable officers were the preferred defendants because they were most likely to pay reasonable fines, and also because there was no good to come of badgering more curmudgeonly superiors when the pay-back might come later in terms of extra duties and being volunteered for investigations and other less than glamorous tasks.

When many units held Mess Dinners regularly, and the role of Senior Subaltern was well respected and usually backed by sufficient experience to lead one's peers in hi-jinks without unacceptable career risk, a unit's subalterns might be able to run a Court in an offhand but effective manner. Little guidance would have been required, except the occasional word from Adjutant to Senior Subaltern when things might be judged to have gone too far. But fewer dinners in more recent times means the subalterns' corporate knowledge of activities such as mess games is a thin veneer where once it was built on collective personal experience. The result has been an operating environment where there are few things of greater risk to a group of young officers' careers than the offhand last-minute suggestion from a well-lubricated senior officer that a Subbies' Court is expected when no plan for one has been prepared.

Purpose of the Subaltern's Court

While some might think that a Subbies' Court has the primary purpose of keeping the Lieutenants busy for an hour after dinner, or to amuse the senior officers who are not being the 'guilty bastards' marching in, they would be quite incorrect. The purpose of the Subalterns' Court is to offer an unofficial and good-natured opportunity for the subalterns to express their collective displeasure with minor affairs that need not (and should not) be brought forward to the chain of command in any formal manner. With a Subalterns' Court, led by the the Senior Subaltern, the subbies can identify the crimes of their chosen defendants, hear remonstrations (and ignore them out of hand if appropriate) and award suitable punishments to the guilty.

Atmosphere and Attitude

A Mess Dinner, while formal, is seldom a serious affair. A Subalterns' Court should never detract from the enjoyment of the dinner by all concerned. A court, if conducted should be an amenable affair, and never vindictive. If the participating subalterns are unable to maintain a suitable atmosphere of playfulness, the Senior Subaltern should not hesitate to cut matters short before the potential repercussions spill over and lead to the involvement, then or later, of the Adjutant or Commanding Officer.

Who can be brought in front of a Subbie's Court?

Fellow Subalterns.

Occasionally a young officer may exhibit behaviour that his peers find unacceptable, such as habitual tardiness that brings unwanted attention to all of the subalterns' timeliness and routines, or a habit of too often avoiding joint entertainment ventures, or maybe they just seem to be sucking up to their superiors too readily. Whatever the reason, standing apart from or bringing unwanted attention upon the group of junior officers is not promoting and protecting the group's integrity. Since the subalterns don't have an official mechanism for counselling and correcting their own, the Subalterns' Court provides a method by which aberrant behaviour can be identified before it further undermines the group's cohesiveness.

When parading one of their own before a Subaltern's Court, a few guidelines need to be observed. Firstly, this is the private business of the subalterns, not to be shared with the senior officers. Secondly, its meant to be a friendly admonition of undesirable social behaviour, not a means to try and correct deficiencies which should be dealt with by the chain of command, and neither should it impart a sense of vindictiveness toward the accused.

As with any 'trial', punishments should fit the crime and not be unnecessarily punitive, keeping in mind that a peer is no better paid than the officers of the court.

Senior Officers.

The real target of a Subaltern's Court is that select group of senior officers who are most likely to contribute to the subalterns' bar expenses out of regimental/corps loyalty, a desire to present a personal example of good spirit in memory of their own days as Lieutenants, and a sense of camaraderie with the newest officer of their regiments/corps. It must be remembered that this is not the time to air serious grievances, the proper route for those are through the Senior Subaltern to the Adjutant and thence to the Commanding Officer if necessary. To attempt to correct something perceived as a serious wrong through the Subalterns' Court has the real potential to turn out badly for all involved.

To call a senior officer before the Subalterns' Court is to take the opportunity to exercise good humoured intentions to imply the collective dissatisfaction of the subalterns. Appropriate charges might include:

An astute reader might notice that the circumstances of each charge may have denied the subalterns a welcome drink, which, if the accused is found guilty of the charge, would be compensated for by a fitting punishment of a round for those present.

The Subalterns' Justice System

While there are certainly no strict rules for the conduct of a Subaltern's Court, a modicum of decorum will not be unappreciated by those senior officers who will be observing proceedings to head off embarrassment for the Commanding Officer. The Senior Subaltern will be held accountable for the execution of Subbie's Court, whether it goes smoothly or otherwise, and it is in the best interest of all the subalterns to work towards a quick and efficient process.

Inspiration for a Subalterns' Court process can be taken from those used for Summary Trials and Courts Martial. Officers of the court will need to be identified, so that preparations can be made. The Court should be a careful blending of parodied military formality and improvisational theatre without overly-serious tones. Subalterns who have imbibed too much to behave well should be kept well away from the accused, as their actions may not be conducive to a swift and effective execution leading to the desired sentencing.

The Roles to be Played

Lieut-Col RJS Langford (The RCR) and Burrell Singer (of the Ontario Bar) wrote a small volume in 1941 entitled the Handbook of Canadian Miltary law. In that book they offered the following appointments among the 'Dramatis Personae' for a Court Martial, and the roles are quite readily adapted for the Subalterns' Court:

a.     The President
'It is the duty of the President to see that justice is administered...'
b.     The Prosecutor
'It is the duty of the prosecutor to bring all the facts of a case fully before a court in evidence ...'
c.     Friend of the Accused
'The friend of the accused may advise the accused on all points and suggest questions to be put to witnesses, but he cannot examine or cross-examine the witness of address the court.''
d.     The Accused
'The duty of the accused is to defend himself as the case may be, not forgetting his paramount duty to tell the truth.'
e.     Witnesses

Due Process

The execution of a Sulbaltern's Court should be smooth without being hurried, efficient without appearing to be too focussed on a pre-determined sentence, and draped in sufficient vestige of protocol to appear that all involved actually know what they are doing. The subalterns who might be required to appear before the Subaltern's Court should be summoned from among the ranks of their fellows by the Senior Subaltern, and take their place without undue protest. Senior officers designated to appear, of which there should not be a long roster, should be invited to appear before the Court by the Friend of the Accused on behalf of the President. An officer who is reluctant to appear cannot be coerced, although a polite entreaty to the CO or DCO, if nearby, may be enough to induce compliance, although this may also indicate the potential for a hostile subject. An officer who outright refuses to appear before the Court should be given the grace to do so, in the hope that he or she will be more amenable at the next dinner. Ensure that the Friend of the Accused has a suitable response prepared for the accused who wishes to plead guilty in absentia and forward his punishment to the Dining Room.

Once the accused has been escorted into the dining room, an atmosphere of solemnity should prevail, minimizing the uproar of the peanut gallery will certainly be conducive to an efficient process. The impression to be made upon the accused is that this is serious business and, hopefully, he will acquire an overwhelming desire to correct those wrongs about to be identified.

The President shall read the charge before the Court. He may then ask the accused if he wishes to admit to the particulars of the charge. If the accused chooses this course of action, and admits to all particulars, the President may proceed to a finding of guilt and sentencing.

If the accused decides not to admit to his guilt, the Prosecutor shall present his case, questioning those subalterns who are identified as witnesses. Evidence should be given in a clear direct manner, preferably in response to direct questions by the Prosecutor who has a responsibility to quickly and efficiently present the Court's case.

The President shall offer the accused an opportunity to rebut, and to question witnesses in their own defence. Any attempts to derail the orderly process of the case, or to intimidate witnesses shall be taken by the President as an attempt to distract the Court from the defendant's guilt.

Once the case against the accused has been presented by the Prosecutor, and an ineffective defence offered by the accused, the President shall, briefly, consider the facts of the case and pronounce a finding of "Guilty."

The Sentencing

It is the responsibility of the Senior Subaltern, as President of the Court, to determine a suitable sentence. The sentence should fit the crime, without being overly punitive in its effect on the officer's wallet (or mood), and, when applicable, should replace the previously mentioned "lost" drinks which has caused the charge to be brought before the court. The sentence may be pronounced in terms of a "round for the Subbie's" (and a good prosecutor will have previously arranged with the Bar Stewards what this shall entail and it's price), or a number of pitchers of beer, bottles of good wine or drinks to be added to an open bar chit for the Subalterns' enjoyment through the evening. These might be delivered directly to the Dining Room if needed while the Court is in session, or held on the bar tab until desired.

Concluding the Trial

The President should offer the thanks of the court to the accused for their generosity, and a hope that their behaviour will not lead to an repeated appearance before the court in the near future. The Friend of the Accused can escort the accused to the bar, leaving him or her with the bar steward to pay their fine.


Remember that it costs nothing to be gracious. There's certainly nothing to be gained by abusing an officer who has just accepted a sentence to contribute to the Subaltern's enjoyment of the evening. The Subaltern's Court should be conducted in a smooth and light-hearted manner, maintained under a thin but apparent balanced veil of solemnity. The Senior Subaltern, as President, must remain cautious that the uncontrolled actions of those few subalterns who have perhaps imbibed too generously of the dinner wines may disrupt proceeding and undermine the goals of the Court. If this occurs, the decision may have to be made to curtail the planned trials in order to avoid undesirable appearances by any or all on the Duty Officer's list. Individual subalterns also need to keep in mind that the subalterns' control of the Dining Room for Subbie's Court does not protect them in the event that any senior officer finds their conduct to be objectionable. A well-run Subaltern's Court can achieve the dual goals of expressing dissatisfaction in a non-confrontational manner and maintaining a flow of free drinks, a poorly conducted Court can be both embarrassing for the Senior Subaltern and the Commanding Officer, and result in enough tension to undo the desired effects of the fines to be paid by the guilty parties.

Plan, prepare, rehearse if necessary, and then:

'March the Guilty Bastards In.'

One Final Note, Looking to the Future

For those subalterns planning and executing Subbie's Court, remember that your day will also come when you too may be one of those senior officers marched in accused of crimes against the subbies. When that happens, approach your fate with good humour, graciousness and generosity, for those attributes will make an excellent example for your junior officers to follow in their turn.