Customs of the Navy

Chapter 9 - Wardroom Customs

Generally speaking the customs practised by officers are those of polite civilian society, with modifications to suit naval circumstances, plus other changes caused through historic development.

The name wardroom itself bears discussion. Before about 1700 each officer lived and messed in his own quarters, cramped as they were. The captain's cabin, on the other hand, was known as the Great Cabin. Under it was the wardrobe, a locker often used to stow articles of value taken from prizes. When not in use for that purpose the officers used it to hang their spare uniforms. It is first spoken of as being used as a general officers' mess about 1750, at which time it was of much greater size than a locker, and was renamed the wardroom.

Until the mid-l9th century the gunroom was where the small-arms were stowed. Here the gunner lived, together with and in charge of the junior officers. Toward the end of that century it was thought advisable to have the warrant officers mess separately; it was as late as 1948 that warrant officers' messes were abolished.

Some customs, originally taken from society to make life at sea more tolerable, regrettably have disappeared from civilian life. Wardroom customs are not really the strange rituals of a secret fraternal organisation, although the traditional practices of mess dinners might appear to contradict this state­ment to no small extent.

The firm rule about not calling anyone a liar in the mess is obvious and sensible -- it avoids trouble and bad feelings. Likewise, though with little present-day application, is the rule regarding not drawing swords in the mess -- to dis­courage duelling. In fact the rule usually observed is that one does not ever wear a sword in a strange mess; to do so in your own is frowned upon.

It is customary for officers, and should be for men as well, to remove their caps before entering a mess other than their own; this custom applies equally to officers’ messes and enclosed messes, and should be observed when passing through seamen's messdecks except on duty. The customary rule applies to cabins and offices as well. This is the same as the practice ashore -- you do not wear a hat in someone else’s home, and though you may wear it in your own home you would not normally do so.

All wardroom drinking is, or should be, social, solitary drinking is considered taboo. It is customary to buy drinks for other officers, particularly one’s friends, and then to toast the others with “cheers” contracted from the Englishman’s “cheerio”. Canadians have turned a bit more cosmopolitan and it is increasingly common to hear skol, bon santé, salud, or even, in ships returning from a Latin-American visit, a variation of salud y amor y pesetas -- health, love and money. In the R.N. it is a custom that foreign languages are not spoken in the mess unless foreign guests are present. As both English and French are officially recognised in Canada and in the R.C.N. Canadian officers take little note of such a rule.

The custom of toasting is said to have begun with the ancient Greeks. The host took the first sip of wine to show his guest that it was not poisoned. Restaurants where wine is served allow the host to sample the wine before the guests’ glasses are filled. At a mess dinner it is forbidden to pro­pose a toast before the Loyal Toast to the Sovereign, except that foreign heads of state are toasted first if foreign guests are present. In civilian circles it is permissible to drink toasts in water; naval superstition presupposes death by drowning for the personage toasted. Likewise a glass that rings tolls the death of a sailor; stop the ring and the Devil takes two soldiers in lieu. This will explain why naval officers never clink glasses in drinking a toast.

At mess dinners it used to be a custom, not often observed now, to propose what was known as the toast of the day. The list that seems to be most commonly followed dates from before Trafalgar, and is:

Monday - our ships at sea

Tuesday - our men

Wednesday - ourselves, because no one else is likely to both

Thursday - a bloody war or a sickly season (to ensure quicker promotion)

Friday - a willing foe and sea room (The two preceding seem to be of historical interest only)

Saturday - wives and sweethearts - may they never meet (reply is made by the youngest officer present)

Sunday - absent friends.

Two kings of England, Charles II (1660 - 1685) and William IV (1830 - 1837), are each credited with authorising the drinking of the Loyal Toast while seated. Whichever king it was, when he rose in one of his ships to reply to a toast while seated. He is reputed to have added “Gentlemen, your loyalty is not questioned”. Officers do not stand even when the National Anthem is played (Q.R.C.N. 61.03), except of course when the sovereign, a member of the Royal Family, or a foreign head of state is present, or when foreign guests are present and the head of any foreign state is toasted first, so our own sovereign will not suffer offence. The officers of H.M.S. BRITANNIA, the Royal Yacht, as specially favoured servants of the Crown, always rise for the Loyal Toast. Except for this ancient privilege of drinking the health of Her Majesty while seated in naval messes, all toasts are drunk by naval officers while standing. Military and air force officers of the Commonwealth conform to our practice when dining with us.

The Port or Madeira decanters are unstoppered, passed always to the left, and then stoppered, before the Loyal Toast is drunk. This practice suggests that the wine is served only for that purpose. If the port is passed again the decanters remain unstoppered until they are removed. The origin of the custom of passing the port always to the left is uncertain. It may be merely symbolic of the movement of the earth in turning toward the sun which ripens the grape. The custom, which we know from early biblical times of protecting a man while he is drinking (in those days from the river) continued into a more recent era. When the cup of cheer was being passed two men stood at a time, one to drink and the second, on his left, to defend him with a sword from attack in the rear. As the first finished he passed the cup to his defender, and the man on his left stood up.

The customs of calling on senior officers and their wives and the leaving of calling cards is now almost unique in military circles. There is a good reason for this custom, based on the fact that naval officers are moved about so much; by making one's number an officer is often assured of hospitality, and if not at least he indicates good service manners. Officers serv­ing in Ottawa call on the Governor General, those in Quebec City call on him when he is in residence during September, while those serving in a provincial capital call on the lieutenant governor of the province.

The custom at an officer's wedding of forming an archway of swords, with their cutting edges upwards in the quinte or fifth guard position, syrnbolises the guarding of the couple as they enter upon their married life.

Finally two customs by which deference is shown to senior officers. A junior officer always enters a boat or car first and leaves last, the original idea possibly being that the senior might remain dry and safe that much longer. Although confusion exists on this point a junior should precede his senior over the brow on going ashore and follow the senior officer onboard. This works at its best when a senior officer and his staff are calling because it enables the captain to greet the officer and lead him to his cabin without having to become ensnarled in staff officers. On departing the entourage can dis­appear over the brow or down the ladder, leaving the senior officer to engage in parting conversation with the captain.

Henry VIII ordered that “no captain shall take the wind of his admiral”, by which was meant the junior officer should pass to leeward of his senior so as not to inconvenience him by cutting off the wind from his sails. Similarly it has long been the custom to request permission to cross a senior's bows, though the necessity for such a manoeuvre should be avoided if at all possible because it might require the senior to shorten sail or reduce speed to avoid collision. Some officers observe this seamanlike practice in the mess: if they reach in front of another officer they say, “may I cross your bows?” This rule has present day application with aircraft carriers operating into wind, to which the U.S.N. has applied the saying, “Never stand behind a mule or cross ahead of a carrier!”

Lord St. Vincent remarked with wisdom: “Discipline begins in the wardroom. I dread not the seamen. It is the indiscreet conversations of the officers and their presumptuous discussions of the orders they receive that produce all our ills.”

These remarks on officers' customs are concluded with a part of the address of the American admiral John Paul Jones to the Naval Committee of Congress on l4 September 1775. Even in this year of expansion in the Canadian naval service, set in an era of modern weapons and futuristic warfare, the famous admiral’s words are excellent advice. The final paragraph is considered of particular importance and interest because it states most clearly the principle of command at sea.

“It is by no means enough that an officer of the navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

“He should not only be able to express himself clearly and with force in his own language both with tongue and pen, but he should also be versed in French and Spanish.

“The naval officer should be familiar with the principles of international law, and the general practice of admiralty jurisprudence, because such knowledge may often, when cruising at a distance from home, be necessary to protect his flag from insult or his crew from imposition or injury in for­eign ports.

“He should also be conversant with the usages of dip­lomacy and capable of maintaining, if called upon, a dignified and judicious diplomatic correspondence; because it often happens that sudden emergencies in foreign waters make him diplomatic as well as military representative of his country, and in such cases he may have to act without opportunity of consulting his civic or ministerial superiors at home, and such action may easily involve the portentous issue of peace or war between great powers. These are general qualifications, and the nearer the officer approaches the full possession of them the more likely he will be to serve his country well and win fame and honors for himself

“Coming now to view the naval officer aboard ship, and in relation to those under his command, he should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward be only one of ap­proval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetence, and well-meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder. As he should be universal and impartial in his rewards and approval of merit, so should he be judicial and un­bending in his punishment or reproof of misconduct.

“In his intercourse with subordinates he should ever maintain the attitude of the Commander, but that need by no means prevent him from the amenities of cordiality or the cultivation of good cheer within the proper limits. Every Commanding Officer should hold with his subordinates such relations as will make them constantly anxious to sit at his table, and his bearing towards them should be such as encourages them to express their opinions to him with freedom and to ask his views without reserve.

“The Navy is essentially and necessarily aristo­cratic. True as may be the political principles for which we now contend, they can never be perfectly applied or even admitted onboard ship, out of port or off soundings. This may seem a hardship, but it is nevertheless the simplest of truths. Whilst the ships sent forth by Congress may and must fight for the principles of human rights and republican freedom, the ships themselves must be ruled and commanded at sea under a system or absolute despotism.”

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