When military officers meet to dine, there is no gentle tapping of the glasses to draw the attention of the group. Nor is there a gentle "excuse me" murmured at ever increasing volume until the room settles down.
Nope. A genial, but no-nonsense fellow briskly raps a gavel at the front of the table and immediately has your attention. Time to stand and toast the Queen--and it needs to be done the proper way. And when I say proper, I mean the same way John Graves Simcoe might have done it when he led the Queen's York Rangers during the American Revolutionary War.
So it was on a crisp Saturday evening recently at the York Armoury in Toronto. As reservists in fatigues trained on the ground floor, I made my way upstairs to the Officers Mess for the Rangers' annual Brandywine and Queenston Heights Mess dinner. In a wood-panelled room decorated with portraits of royalty, commanders past and banners from the Rangers' long history I found diners in tuxedos, formal military attire, fine frocks, (and a dark business suit in my case) standing around chatting and sipping sherry.
It was my introduction to the ancient, and to me foreign, institution of formal military dining.
"The main thing is that this is an officer's mess where the officers met in fellowship. Although it may seem very formal it's actually less formal than in the military world," former QYR Commander Don McKenzie told me. He organized the evening.
"This is really meant to be the officers' home. And so that the primary thing. It's about fellowship."
The title of the dinner commemorated two key moments from the Rangers' past. John Graves Simcoe, before he became Ontario's first Lieutenant Governor, led the regiment in the famous battle of Brandywine during the American Revolutionary War in 1777. It was the largest engagement of the war and one that that Brits prefer to remember because they won.
Simcoe was also at the Battle of Yorktown, which did not go so well and effectively ended the British effort to keep the 13 Colonies in the fold. But famously, he refused to surrender the Rangers colours and now they are displayed proudly at the front of the dining room.
Queenston Heights in the War of 1812 was another high point for the Queen's York Rangers--another British victory over the Yankees.
In 2016 they are now a reserve unit, governed by a Regimental Council which includes both current and former members and some civilians--all of whom collaborate to govern and support the Rangers.
Those with a military background are expected to know the protocols of a formal mess dinner--the civilians not so much. So, in advance of the evening, McKenzie sent a wry aide memoire to all the guests with advice on how one should conduct one's self.
A silver tray should be at the entrance for business cards, a glass of dry sherry should be offered upon arrival and unit members should make the effort to engage newcomers in conversation.
"What we'd like to do is to expose them to the tradition of the regiment and to make them familiar with the customs and traditions of a mess dinner and how it's conducted here," said McKenzie, with just a hint of a touch of Scottish burr in his accent, a product of his youth in Glasgow.
Exactly 15 minutes before dinner, Pipe Major Dave Sanderson stationed himself at the front of the room and played a short passage on the bag pipes. He performed a similar alert at the five-minute mark, warning all in need of a bathroom break to get it done.
At the appointed hour, all guests should leave their unfinished glasses of sherry elsewhere and be standing in their places as the head table is piped in.
I forgot the part about holding the chair for the female guest to my right, but my colleague Vicki Ollers either did not notice the oversight or forgave my ignorance as we took our seats.
The aide memoire urged diners to make conversation with table mates on either side and to ensure that all have access to bread, butter, salt and pepper. It dryly advised of one exception:
"When a junior subaltern asks something: it is proper then to announce loudly "Mr.
Fotheringay-Smythe wants the bread" and then pass it in the opposite direction.
This cruelty is amusing to all except the victim, whose character is hardened the
better to prepare him for the rigours of the campaign and to inflict consternation on
the enemies of the Regiment."
The real ceremony came at the end. Once everyone had eaten, the President of the Mess Committee (PMC) Matt Lennox briskly rapped his gavel twice and announced that there would be a five-minute break to allow the serving staff to clear the table before the toasts.
There is an ancient reason for all this, centring on the "loyal toast" to the monarch, which always comes first.
"A little echo of 18th century Britain," explained McKenzie, motioning to the water glass, which must be removed.
It seemed that if you held your port over it, there was a seditious meaning.
"Because you might have some Jacobite Scot who would toast the Queen 'over the water'. That would mean you're not actually toasting the reigning monarch, you're toasting the rebel James who's lurking in Rome." That would refer to the unhappy King James II, deposed in 1688 for his Catholic sympathies.
Table cleared of rebellious symbols, we took our seats and poured our port. PMC Lennox rapped his gavel, invited us to stand and glasses were raised to the Queen.
Protocol demands that you sit after each toast, then rise at the gavel as toasts are made in succession to the Colonel in Chief (Prince Andrew), Fallen Comrades, Allied and Affiliated Regiments and finally the Regiment itself.
Honourary Colonel Darrell Bricker gave a short speech recalling the long history of the Queen's York Rangers, including the 111 who died in the Battle of the Somme exactly 100 years earlier.
"And they continue to serve," said Bricker, noting that Rangers saw action in Canada's Afghanistan mission.
McKenzie explained that here is where all the traditions of the mess dinner still matter.
"It really is building this fellowship of a corps of officers," he said.
"If it lends someone just a little extra courage, a little extra effort, then it has done its job."
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