Taste of Life: How regimental messes kept alive esprit de corps among soldiers - Hindustan Times
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Taste of Life: How regimental messes kept alive esprit de corps among soldiers

ByChinmay Damle
Jul 12, 2023 11:58 PM IST

The British army in India, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, began its mission to establish regiments, both permanent and temporary

The history of diets are contextual stories sewed by a wide range of social actors, the intertwining of food and gender can be framed in a perspective that includes and embraces the dimension of the self about others, in both material and symbolic cases. Gendered socio-spatial practices help explain how power asymmetries between women and men carry over from one social setting to the next.

The mess had been an exclusively British environment for British officers in India. (SOURCED)
The mess had been an exclusively British environment for British officers in India. (SOURCED)

The British army in India, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, began its mission to establish regiments, both permanent and temporary. The soldiers initially were accommodated in tents. They mostly ate together in large tents. Later, barracks were built in cities and villages like Poona and Kirkee.

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In the late 1810s, it was decided that regimental messes would be established in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies. These messes were meant only for the army officers. It was an all-male affair, with women allowed on only a few days a year. The rule obliged every corps of officers to have their own regimental mess and also obliged every officer to belong to the mess. Little or no difference existed in the rules of different corps about the dinner, or eating part of the entertainment.

Before the regimental messes were established, soldiers dined in common dining halls. Some native soldiers were allowed to cook for themselves. Most of the officers lived and dined in their own houses. However, some British army officers believed that the officers of a corps were bound together by “many ties of sympathy” – that they were engaged in the same common cause and exposed to the same casualties, and that they must look to themselves for the principal sources of amusement and comfort in a foreign land. Hence it was natural, they felt, that regimental messes be established in the military stations of India since such establishments tended to keep alive both the “esprit de corps”, and “kindly feelings between brother officers”.

In most Indian cities, guests and visitors could stay at a good travellers’ bungalow. But the bungalow in Poona was not sufficient to accommodate more than eight guests. Hence, it was necessary to make some arrangements for the dining of army guests visiting Poona.

The initial regimental messes in India were established in Poona and Kirkee. The Mess House built by the officers of His Majesty’s 47th Regiment was opened in April 1821 in Poona. Mr Chaplin, the commissioner, and all the military and civil officers of the station dined with the corps, which was kept up, with the “greatest harmony”, till a late hour. The building reflected great credit on the committee of management both as to comfort and conveniences; it was capable of dining a hundred people, besides an extensive music and billiard room.

The bungalows of most officers’ messes would usually be tastefully laid out, and furnished with a good library, billiard table and other sporting equipment. The mess parties in Poona were very popular among the gentlemen, and the ladies were gratified by the presence, occasionally, of their fine band on the exercise ground, on which the bands of the regiments doing duty there alternately played.

According to Richard Burton, the regimental mess in Poona, with its large cool hall and punkahs, its clean napery and bright silver, its servants each standing behind his master’s chair, and the cheroots and hookahs which appeared with the disappearance of the table-cloth, was a pleasant surprise, the first sight of comfortable home-life one would see since landing at Bombay.

The dinner service at the regimental messes in Poona and Kirkee was known to be elegant. However, when John Malcolm came to Poona in the initial years of the nineteenth century, many soldiers and officers were given an allowance to pay for food and minor services such as laundry. Their officers’ mess menu followed an unvarying weekly cycle: “Monday: Ketcheree: Tuesday: Fowl curry: Wednesday: Mutton curry: Thursday: Mutton, baked: Friday: Mutton soup: Saturday: Fowl curry: Sunday: Mutton curry.

The mess had been an exclusively British environment for British officers in India. Even though many of them loved “curry”, the menu consisted of “boiled, fried or roasted fish, chicken and scraggy mutton”.

The officers followed the mess rules diligently. In August 1865, Captain McDonald was allowed to have dinner at his residence by Colonel Payn. McDonald lived in the depot lines, which was a considerable distance to travel on monsoon nights. The correspondence mentioning this exemption further noted that this was not to be taken or considered in any way as a precedent.

The officers were extremely punctilious in appointing the mess committee. A respectable butler, or at any rate as respectable a one as could be found, was selected by the mess committee. The butler was commonly referred to as a messman. He was supposed to make arrangements to furnish dinner daily for the officers. A stipulation was made that he was to charge a certain amount, generally from one to two rupees, in the 1870s, for each guest who might dine at the mess, and twelve to fourteen rupees a month, for each officer who ate “tiffin”.

It was a common belief that the messman accumulated a large profit by running the mess. Several messmen were known to have invested pretty large sums in the purchase of houses, gardens etc.

If, however, the rules of messes varied little, as far as the eating part was concerned, they varied very much in the rules concerning alcoholic drinks. This department was entirely in the hands of the mess committee. They ordered different wines, beers, and whiskies from England, or Bombay, placed a price on them sufficient to cover breakage etc., collected the amount of the wine bill from different officers through the regimental paymaster, and remitted to the proper parties who had furnished the supplies the money thus collected.

The difference which existed in the wine rules of regiments was caused by the great variety of styles in which wine was placed on the mess table. For instance, in a regimental mess in Mhow, the custom every night was to place four kinds of wine on the table – claret, sherry, madeira, and port; while in Poona, only madeira and port were placed on the table.

The majority of the members of a mess had a right to make rules and regulations as they might deem consistent with their comfort, and they no doubt had the right to alter or change those rules as they thought fit: the majority of the officers present with any regiment in India, and more especially with regiments belonging to The East India Company’s service, were young men, and it was thought that for young men to have any notion of the economy was rare, and this prevented regimental messes being kept on as economical a scale as general officers and other military authorities seemed to think they ought to be.

A few years after the regimental messes had started functioning it was argued by some that the institution had been putting young army officers in debt. Letters were written to the British Parliament suggesting that the regimental messes were expensive and that it was cheaper to eat at a private residence. Some of these correspondences referred to the messes in Poona.

More about this next week.

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