Daily Life of Soldiers and Officers


The Mess

Officers in the mess, circa 1850

Caption: Officers in the mess, circa 1850

The social hub for officers was the mess. The word originated from the custom among officers of sharing costs to improve the standard of meals they took together. The practice was known as "messing." It spread, and in the 1760s commanding officers were encouraged to establish officers' messes, not only for the material advantages they brought, but also to develop regimental spirit and for the men to live "together like a family." 83 Little by little, the regimental messes became more sophisticated; first they procured their own dishes and glassware, then silverware, luxurious furniture and their own personnel. The costs were covered by a deduction from each officer's salary, in proportion to his rank, in addition to a contribution from the sovereign, beginning in 1818.

In the nineteenth century, the mess became a comfortable place where an officer could find books, newspapers, board games and a fine wine cellar and where he could discuss matters with his colleagues in a warm and pleasant atmosphere. It was the military equivalent of a good private club. In several garrisons the officers' mess was far from inferior to establishments found locally; in fact it was probably superior in terms of refined living and in terms of the intellectual matters discussed. Of course there were obligations, chief among which was that members had to behave like gentlemen. The first regulations appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century; single members were generally required to dine there three or four times per week, with married members and civilian gentlemen entitled to visit as a guest once a week. An unannounced visit by a woman would cause an absolute scandal. Women were, however, admitted once a month for a gala dinner in their honour. The regimental musicians usually played at the dinner for guests and at the ladies' dinner, the latter concluding with dancing.