Customs of the Navy

Chapter 5 - Salutes and Ceremonial

All forms of military salutes are signs of mutual trust and respect between members of units of armed forces. Unfortunately, as with many of the customs of our service, we tend to find saluting little more than a required yet meaningless ritual; we find it so because we forget its origin and background.

In the days of knights in shining armour it was not only difficult to distinguish friend from foe but it was almost impossible to determine if one's adversary were in a friendly or fighting mood. It became the custom for a knight wishing to make a gesture of friendliness to remove his helmet while still at a distance, and if the other did the same the two would approach, each at the mercy of the other. Removing the helmet was no easy task and a common and recognised shortcut was to raise only the visor, thereby leaving at least a part of one's head vulnerable. Even this became a tiresome routine and it became sufficient to raise one's right hand (the left held the shield) showing the flat of the palm, indicating no weapon was concealed therein. This same type of salute has been in use for centuries as a signal of peace among native tribes in many parts of the world. Rules of conduct, particularly for knights, the gentlemen of the court, were strict and it is doubtful if there were many cases of unfair advantage being taken.

An integral part of saluting while passing is the 'eyes right' or 'eyes left'. In feudal times serfs and slaves were not permitted to look at their master; they were required to stand aside with heads bowed, or even to crawl past in the mud and slime of the road-side ditch. The soldiers employed by the lord of the manor enjoyed the privilege of looking their master straight in the eye, and raised their hats or helmets as a mark of respect.

Until about 1800 the normal type of salute was the raising of the cap, originating with the removal of the steel helmet. Merely touching the cap became a recognized alternative. Admiralty regulations of 1882 defined the salute as removing the cap, or at least touching the brim between the index finger and thumb. This is a clear indication of the origin of the naval type of salute, though other more interesting reasons have been offered. One of these is that in the year 1890 Queen Victoria, renowned for her primness and femininity, while inspecting a body of her sailors turned out in their best uniforms, was horrified at the sight of their tar-stained hands, and ordered that in future the naval salute was to be with the offending palms turned down.

Officers were permitted to salute with the left hand if the right were engaged, but this privilege was withdrawn in 1923 to standardise the salute. The U.S. Navy still authorises the left-hand salute. In that service it is permissible, though exceptional to salute when uncovered.

An old type of salute, removing the cap, is still used in the navy on some occasions: the reading of the prayers at divisions, reading of the National Defence Act or the Articles of War (to show respect for the statutes of the nation), for a captain's or senior officer's inspection, and for defaulters. A fine custom, now obsolete, was for a signalman, before hoisting or lowering the colours, to lay his cap on the deck. In the Spanish and Chilean navies signalmen still remove their caps for colours and sunset. 'Doffing one's bonnet' is generally recognised as a mark of shame, though not intended as such, rather than to show respect for the Commander or the law one has contravened; it has been said that some men remove their caps as infrequently as possible because the act reminds them too much of their appearance as defaulters!

The first movement in saluting with the sword, known as the recover, is said to have religious significance dating from the Crusades, (1905-1271 A.D.). The sword in earlier forms was in the shape of a cross, and the position of recover closely resembles the Crusader's act of kissing the cross of his sword before going into battle. It may also have some connection with the oriental custom of shielding the eyes from a superior. The position of the salute itself is a modification of the former practice of thrusting the point of the sword into the ground from which position it would be more than difficult to strike suddenly at one's opponent. The same principle is true of either the butt salute with a rifle or the present arms. In the latter case even the name implies the offering of the arms to a superior.

Our custom of saluting the quarterdeck originates at least in part from the deference shown pagan idols and shrines to the gods placed there. Also for centuries the quarterdeck has been regarded as the seat of authority, though it is saluted even by the captain. Surely the simplest reason is that in harbour and in fair weather at sea the colours are flown from the quarterdeck. In the United States Navy officers and men coming aboard face aft and salute their ensign whereas we appear to salute the ship. In harbour some men salute as they step over the brow to go ashore. An officer does so only to return the courtesy salutes of the officer-of-the-watch and the gangway staff; it is incorrect for men to do likewise.

The principle mentioned of putting oneself at the mercy of a possible adversary as a gesture of intended friendship may also be seen in forms of salutes by armed vessels. When the ship that was to windward had the advantage of speed and position the act of letting fly her sheets was clearly one of friendly intentions. We employ the same principle in sailing craft, in pulling boats by resting oars or tossing oars, and in power boats by cutting the engine or shifting to neutral. After 1201 A.D. the customary salute by a merchant vessel to a man-of-war was to strike the topsail. Even before steam replaced sail the practice of dipping the ensign in lieu of a topsail had been introduced. The second Dutch War started because of repeated failure of Dutch ships to salute British war vessels as agreed in 1673. There are now no written regulations regarding such salutes, even by British and Commonwealth merchant vessels, but flagrant or repeated occurrences of failure to conform with the usual courtesy are to be reported to Naval Headquarters. The Admiralty order regarding salutes by foreign vessels was withdrawn in 1808.

A warship, before entering a foreign port, to signify her friendly intent would fire all her guns singly, thus leaving the ship temporarily unarmed because of the time required to reload. Usually the charges were blank, but even if shotted no damage would result since all guns were fired on the beam outside the port. There is an order that no warship may fire a salute in the Thames river above Gravensent because in the 16th century a ship accidentally fired shotted rounds which caused minor damage to Greenwich Palace in which Queen Elizabeth I was living.

When two warships met each would steer toward the other, firing all guns singly on the beam. Later the practice developed of firing personal gun salutes, a certain number of guns depending on the rank or status of the personage saluted. In the British and American navies a salute of twenty-one guns - the royal or national salute - is the maximum; there is no maximum established internationally. You will perhaps wonder why we always fire an odd number of guns in our salutes. Although nearly all ships of the line had even numbers of guns the reason probably is that odd numbers (thirteen now excepted) have been considered lucky for many centuries. The Roman poet, Virgil, writing about 70 B.C., makes mention of this superstition. The only exception appears to be that minute guns, fired on the occasion of a sovereign's funeral, total the number of years of his age.

A special gun salute, the firing of a single gun known as the 'rogue's salute', is fired at colours on the day a court martial convenes. Formerly this was a signal to the fleet for all hands to muster on deck to witness yardarm execution. A yellow flag was flown in the ship to be watched until execution was carried out; when hauled down hands could disperse.

Piping the side is a purely nautical honour which originated in the method of arrival onboard of visiting captains, frequently portly gentlemen, who were hoisted onboard while the boatswain passed orders to the men with his boatswain's call. Although the officer-of-the-watch now says "Pipe" to the sideparty the order used to be "Hoist him in". The call itself dates from the era of the Greek and Roman galleys when the stroke of the oars was called with a whistle. It was then and has been ever since both a 'whistle of honour' and a 'whistle of command'. Mention is made that in 1248, during the Crusades, the call was used for passing orders. In 1645 it was carried only by masters, boatswains and coxswains; now it is the badge of office of the quartermaster and boatswain's mates who may wear a boatswain's call and silver chain instead of a lanyard. Aboard the Italian cadet training brigantine AMERIGO VESPUCCI the boatswain and his mates use only the boatswain's call for passing their orders.

The call itself used to be blown three times for a salute. For some reason this was reduced to two, once as the boat draws alongside the ship's accommodation ladder, and again as the officer mounts the ladder and steps inboard; the procedure is reversed at his departure. When coming onboard or leaving by brow the side is only piped once.

The side is also piped for a corpse which is brought on board, as for a funeral at sea, and for the officer-of-the guard when he is flying his pendant.

Members of royalty, their personal representatives, and senior officers of military services are accorded musical salutes, if entitled by regulations. In the original form this type of salute consisted of a number or ruffles on drums -- three for an admiral, two for a vice-admiral, and one for a rear-admiral. Recently the traditional British musical salutes were replaced in the R.C.N. by others of distinctive Canadian music.

Another form of salute which originates in the showing of friendly intent is that of manning ship. All hands appeared on deck or aloft and grasped the rigging -- now only the guardrails; this showed that guns were not manned and no small arms were carried.

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