Another Fine Mess
Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall remembers living, eating and drinking in the finest traditions of the British regimental system
By Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall
August 14 2023
In pitch black, and in the rain, the Royal Engineers had laboured all night to establish an amphibious bridge across the River Weser, in order that the mighty 1st (British) Corps could cross to the far bank to expel the forces of ‘Redland’ from West Germany. Much to their surprise, the first vehicle to drive carefully over their complex engineering achievement was a ‘blacked out’ 4-tonner lorry, followed closely behind by a troop of armoured reconnaissance vehicles.
On the far bank the bemused sappers watched the lorry manoeuvre gingerly through the muddy bridge exit, and disappear into the night. Thanks to this masterpiece of military planning, and long before the tanks and infantry of the leading battle-groups had got to grips with the enemy, the Officers’ Mess tent of the 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars had been safely set up in a dry barn.
Persian carpets were on the ground, trestle tables, covered with white tablecloths and groaning with mess silver had been erected. Some of the less valuable paintings of the Regiment adorned the canvas walls of the tent, and a couple of leather armchairs, alongside a small table, sporting copies of The Field, Country Life and Tatler completed the picture. When the commanding officer and his command team appeared sometime later, triumphant from the field of battle, in their nuclear, chemical and biological suits, wearing camouflage cream on their faces, and carrying small arms over their shoulders, drinks were ready, and good smells were already emanating from the small cook tent behind.
British regiments embody Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’ in life, and a good officers’ mess is at the heart of them. Wherever, and whenever, two or more officers from the same regiment find themselves together, they form a ‘mess’. Originally merely a room in a favourite tavern where the officers congregated for a midday meal, the British Army regimental officers’ mess has developed into an institution that not merely provides the functions of board and lodge, but which provides the focus for the whole history, tradition, pride and ethos of a regiment. The British Army has nearly 400 years of accumulated military service behind it, and every picture, photograph, piece of furniture, article of military ephemera and chunk of ornate silver in a regimental officers’ mess has a story behind it, as do the uniforms sported by the officers on formal occasions.
So, on the great high-days and holidays in the mess, does every regimental march, every toast, and every ‘quaint’ tradition that is on display for bewildered (or admiring) guests. Bagpipes, leeks, songs, elaborate chariots for port, standing or sitting for the loyal toast, and arcane games and ceremonies, all have some provenance or precedent. The mess is very much the home of the bachelor officers, but it is also the showcase of the regiment. So, in the course of a year, while the mess will normally cater for a dozen or so junior officers, it may also host a solitary subaltern, dressed in the ‘blues’ uniform of the orderly officer, be the setting for a huge and extravagant officers’ mess ball, or provide the locus for glittering dinner nights when the commanding officer invites the military hierarchy, local big-wigs, and officers from fellow regiments, to help mark a battle honour. Each occasion will have its own comforting satisfaction, often ending with ‘diversions’, with the subalterns, whose home it is, co-opting such props as fish-ponds, chandeliers, and minstrel galleries, as the spirit moves them.
The same spirit exudes in an officers’ mess when it goes ‘into the field’, whether on exercise, campaign, operations, or war. Sometimes it may deploy it’s officers’ mess tent, suitably equipped, a la the 15th/19th Hussars: in 1990, I joined a very convivial and stylish Christmas party with the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars in the desert, just before the invasion of Iraq, and an equally jolly party with the 14th/20th Hussars after combat operations ceased.
Sometimes it may be simply a trench or a dugout where, with an oatmeal block and a slice of processed cheese, young officers may raise a mug of tea to toast their monarch, on appropriate occasions. In the Peninsula War there were only two officers left in the Gloucester Regiment, at the end of a particularly bloody engagement, to drink the health of the King at dinner in a local taverna. The Mess President proposed the toast in the usual manner, ‘Mr Vice, the King’, but Mr Vice, with no other officers present, had no option but to reply, ‘Mr President, the King’.
In the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo, the only two living, and unwounded, officers of the King’s Dragoon Guards were invited to join their senior non-commissioned officers for haunch of horse, lightly braised in a French cuirassier’s breastplate. Although the menu has now been updated, the tradition of the officers dining in the Sergeant’s Mess on Waterloo Day has continued.
If the officers’ mess is at the heart of the regiment, then food and drink are at the heart of the officers’ mess. In the 1980s, whilst peacock, swan and gilded lampreys may have disappeared from the menu, the chefs of the Army Catering Corps ensured that even the jeunesse dorée of the officers’ mess marched on well-fed stomachs. Robust fare was the order of the day, and substantial portions. One was not going to face down the armoured might of the Soviet 3rd Shock Army on some lightly steamed fish and broccoli. Full fried breakfasts, joints, cutlets, pies, and puddings were regular staples. Trifles, possets, syllabubs, and crumbles were far more familiar puddings than they are today. Chilli sherry was often available for the lunchtime soup, as was Gentleman’s Relish at teatime, and a large stilton might sometimes supplement the Army-issue cheddar and Danish Blue, although the issue of ‘extra-messing charges’ could be a source of contention between the ‘Spartans’ and the ‘Epicures’ or ‘Gourmands’ of the mess.
Regimental dinners could be commendably elaborate, although the cooks occasionally seemed obsessed with adding a sorbet between courses. One officer’s mess messing member tested the loyalty of that military-equivalent of ‘the Red Wall, the Sergeants Mess, by offering ‘sweetbreads’. Any officer foolish enough to enquire about the ‘vegetarian option’ was either deemed to be slightly ‘light in the hoof’, or might even be quietly advised to transfer regiments. ‘Vegans’ were assumed to be a sub-set of the Klingons, ‘gluten-free’ some form of lubricant for a tank barrel, and ‘semi-skimmed’ the failed toss of a frisbee.
The cooks were as versatile in the field as they were in the mess, depending on the raw materials to hand, but fresh eggs, and bread from the Army’s field bakeries, helped break the monotony of tinned rations. On operations, the addition of the contents of ‘Red Cross parcels’ from family and friends also helped. In Saudi Arabia in 1991, on the eve of breaching the border berm into Iraq, the officers sat down to a nourishing meal of chicken in brown sauce and chips. This hearty fare was, however, reinforced by two sides of smoked salmon, a ham in aspic, smoked oysters and truffles. A delicious fruit cake was found to have eight miniatures baked into it. While contemplating our mortality, and smoking cigars, we even managed to decant some red wine from a Ribena bottle, and to squeeze some whisky and vodka from former flasks of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and Baby Oil. One officer even wore a newly-tailored, double-breasted, pin-stripe suit that had somehow found its way up the logistic chain, from Savile Row to the front-line. Before we returned to our armoured vehicles, we all raised a battered plastic or metal mug to Her Majesty; ‘The Queen’.
Drink was a major feature of an officers’ mess. Gin and tonic before lunch and dinner, white and red wine with dinner, charged equally whether you had one or several glasses, maybe a glass of port, and then tax-free whiskies and soda and some high-stakes card-playing. Famous Grouse, ‘the low-flyer’, was the whisky of choice. To our irritation and chagrin, while all of us aspired to a Meursault quality of life, most of us were sadly on a Blue Nun level of salary, so there was an eternal battle to find the wines that met our aspirations, but that did not generate mess bills that would lead to an officer being cashiered.
Occasionally there would be a NAAFI-sponsored wine-tasting in the mess where the enquiry, ‘would you like to try a small glass of this Chablis’, would normally be met with the response, ‘no, I’d like to try a very large glass of it’. Champagne was the currency of celebration, and of fines, and guests at dinner nights were often treated to the spectacle of ‘sabrage’, or the beheading of a bottle of champagne using the orderly officer’s sword.
Officers’ messes, in the British Army, come in all shapes and sizes, but whether in barracks and garrisons, or in the mud, jungles or deserts of deployed operations, they all contribute to the morale and fighting spirit of a regiment or battalion, providing a reminder to all the officers of the magnificent heritage of which they are the current guardians. This does not mean that distinctions cannot be drawn between the circumstances in which mess members find themselves. Officers of the Indian Army infantry, stationed in the austere frontier camps and forts of the North West Frontier, behind wire, and often under fire, were very conscious of the social and mess life of their military brethren in the more glamorous stations of the Raj. Not unmindful of this, the Colonel of a famous Punjabi regiment called his cat ‘Indian Cavalry’. When a diffident young officer of a British regiment asked him why, he explained, ‘Well, me boy, y’see, when he is not eating or sleeping, he is playing games, drinking, or making love’.
It is customary on Regimental Guest Nights that none of the hosting officers leave before the guests, or the Commanding Officer. On my first Officers’ Mess Dinner Night as Commanding Officer of the mighty 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards, I forgot this precedent. Carried away, and carried along, by the splendour of the band, the regimental marches, the glittering uniforms, the flickering candles, the highly-polished silver, the laughter and the lively conversations, the first-class quality of the food and the drink, I eventually turned to the President of the Mess Committee. ‘What an excellent night this has been, Tim. Three o’clock in the morning, and look how many officers are still here’. ‘Yes, Colonel’, he said, rather pointedly. I took his point, but it really had been an excellent night!
Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall KBE CB is a retired British Army officer and a Middle East Adviser at the Ministry of Defence