In the run-up to the event at Westerham in Kent, this week we will look at the mess system in the British Army. From a living history perspective our numbers are usually around those required to form a mess and therefore the mess is the ideal place to start in any recreation of the 18th century.
So what was the mess? The mess was the basic formation of the British Army throughout the Seven Years War and beyond. When joining the regiment a soldier would be assigned to a mess with whom he would share his military life. Regulations called for the creation of messes, the size of which varied between roughly 4-8 men. For example one period treatise describing that “Each squad be form’d into a mess” (unknown:16). Bland further describes that “each mess consisting of 4 to 6 men” (189). Cuthbertson writing in the 1770’s again suggested that that “Five, Six or Eight men, being the general number of men in a mess” (25). It is also worth noting that this number corresponds with the number of men sharing a tent as described by Lochee (18) and in a soldiers journal where the private mess consisted of 6 men with whom he also shared a tent (unknown:4,10).
It would appear the British Army numbered their messes. A good example of this comes from the Journal of John Knox, who fought during the Quebec Campaign. “with many other pleasantries, which concluded by inviting the peasant and his dog to dine with them, telling the man where their barracks was, and the number of their mess” (241). Another later example of messing numbers being used as well as illustrating how a mess shared a tent is shown below.
So why would a mess be formed? Well apart from being in regulations, the mess had one primary advantage. Each man provided a quota of his wages which would be used to buy rations for the whole mess. The idea being that they would not be able to “spend their pay on liquor” (Bland: 189). A soldiers journal gives us a vivid image of this “the morning after I was joined to the company, I had to put a quota of moneys into the mess, that some of us might go to market to buy provisions” (unknown:10). Cuthbertsons going as far as proposing that NCO’s assemble the men and march them to the market (25).
The army being so concerned of the disadvantages of not partaking of the mess, the inspection of messes was to be carried out daily by sergeants or corporals (Unknown:116, Bland:189) or by the officers (Kane:73).
Next week, we will take a look at what the basic rations, what the mess bought and how they cooked it.