Thursday, May 14, 2015

MESS = MAINTENANCE OF EQUAL SOCIAL STATUS : Musings on the “Military Class System”

Musings on the “Military Class System

Owing to the nature of their warfighting role – since ancient history  and right till the present day  military forces throughout the world are class based organisations. 

Hence – the “military class system is still prevalent in Indian Armed Forces  and indeed this military class system exists in armed forces throughout the world.

Military Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force) have 2 classes:

1. Officers


2. PBOR (Personnel Below Officer Rank which includes Soldiers/Sailors/Airmen) – also called by other names like enlisted men” etc. 

(In the Indian Army – there is a peculiar class called Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) which is a colonial legacy of the British Raj – but since this article deals with Officers – this aspect is not quite relevant here)

All officers belong to one class.

That is why I was quite surprised to hear some Army Officers say that someone had proposed a bizarre idea to divide Officers into two classes (Colonels and Below & Brigadiers and above) and have separate Officers Messes for the two classes.

It is laughable that some top-brass feel that Colonels are “Junior” Officers – whereas in earlier days even Lieutenant Colonels were considered “Senior” Officers.

Maybe this is a result of devaluation of rank due to repeated Cadre Reviews, especially AVS 2006.

Hey – I have digressed.

We were talking about the bizarre idea of having separate Officers Messes for “Senior Officers and “Junior Officers.

This prompts me to delve into my Humor in Uniform archives and pull out this article I had written 5 years ago on DEFINITION AND MEANING OF OFFICERS MESS (Maintenance of Equal Social Status)

Read on – and do tell me if you agree with my views – or you think that my views are “antiquated gibberish of an old fogey... Ha Ha ...

Ramblings of a Navy Veteran


A few days ago 
 a young army officer asked me why a Navy Officers’ Mess is called a Wardroom.

I had asked the same question to a senior naval officer long ago 
 in the 1970’s  when I joined the Navy.

Here is the answer – the genesis of the term WARDROOM:

In the 18th Century, in the British Navy  warships had a large compartment called “WARDROBE”.

This compartment  the “Wardrobe”  was used for storing “prizes of war”, booty and valuables, plundered from foreign ships at sea and looted in conquests on shores of other countries.

The wardrobe was generally located near the officers’ accommodation (cabins).

When the wardrobe was empty, especially during the outward voyage, the officers began using this “wardrobe” compartment for dining and lounging, to have their meals and to congregate and pass time together. 

As the days of plundering and looting ended  the wardrobe was used exclusively by officers as a lounge and for eating meals.

Gradually  the wardrobe became the officers’ mess and lounge, and having been elevated from a “closet” to a “room”, instead of “Ward Robe” it was now called the “Ward Room”.

Whereas Officers dined in the Wardroom  Sailors dined in “messes” on board warships.

When it first appeared in English, “mess” meant a portion of food (from the Old French word “mes which means “a dish”).

Later  “mess” came to refer to a group of people, who sat together at a meal and were served from the same dishes. 

In warships  a group of sailors would sit together at one table and were served from the same dishes – in a “mess”, and those who habitually sat together were messmates.

Like a “wardroom” for officers, on a warship, depending on the size, there may be many separate department-wise “mess-rooms” for junior sailors, one or two senior sailors’ mess-rooms.

Soon the term “mess-room” was itself later contracted to mess.

So now, in the Navy, a modern warship has a “wardroom” for officers, and “messes” for sailors.

In the Navy  even commissioned establishments ashore (Stone Frigates) are referred to as “ships” and therefore have “wardrooms”.

The Army and Air Force have Officers’ Messes.

To put it in a nutshell, let us say that a Wardroom is a Navy Officers’ Mess.

I told you, above, the genesis of the term “MESS”.

However, in the article below, I shall give a completely different connotation to the term “MESS”.

Read on  and let me know your views:



If you have served in the Army, Navy or Air Force or are familiar with Military life, I am sure you know what is an OFFICERS MESS

In the Navy an Officers Mess is called WARDROOM or Wardroom Mess.

(I have explained the genesis of the naval term WARDROOM above).

There are two words in the term OFFICERS MESS.

The first word OFFICERS is the plural of Officer and surely you know what the term “OFFICER” means, especially in the context of the Military.

But do you know what the word MESS stands for?

I am sure you know, but if you don’t know, then let me tell you.

Actually, the word MESS is an acronym.

The acronym MESS is the short form for Maintenance of Equal Social Status.



The very aim of an Officers Mess is to maintain Equal Social Status among all its members, irrespective of their ranks.

Long back  during a party  I heard an Admiral once say:

“ All Officers have equal social status. Ranks are for administrative purposes only ”

If I recall correctly  he attributed this maxim to Field Marshal Cariappa.

Field Marshal Cariappa probably felt that excessive rank consciousness among officers and their families at social functions would adversely affect camaraderie among officers.

As a consequence  such blatant display of rank discrimination would damage cohesion of the officer cadre.

The “military class system is still prevalent in Indian Armed Forces  and indeed this military class system exists in armed forces throughout the world.

In the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force) there are two classes:

1. Officers


2. PBOR (Personnel Below Officer Rank which includes Soldiers/Sailors/Airmen)

All officers belong to one class.

That is why  in an Officers Mess  all members are equal  and all officers who are members of the mess have the same social status  irrespective of the ranks and positions they hold outside the Mess. 


In the Army  there is a saying: Rank Has Its Privileges (RHIP).

But that is outside the Mess. 

Yes  Rank may give you privileges outside the Officers Mess  but inside the Mess all Officers enjoy Equal Social Status.

Hence  all officers  especially the senior officers  must remember that RHIP operates outside the Mess or Wardroom.

Inside the Mess it is all about comradeship, friendship and fellowship and that is why all members enjoy equal social status.

Since all officers enjoy equal social status  there is no place for “VIP Culture inside the Officers’ Mess.


An Officers Mess has 3 main functions:

1. It serves as a home for single officers (in-living members) where they live, eat and can entertain friends.

2. For married officers and their families, the officers mess serves as a social club where they can gather for moments of relaxation and recreation and bonhomie with fellow officers and their families. A good mess has many facilities for sports and pastimes.

3. For a ship or unit, the wardroom or officers mess is the centre of social life. 


Each service has its own unique customs and traditions pertaining to wardrooms and officers messes.

In the Navy  the Captain is not a member of the ships wardroom and customarily the Captain messes separately

The Captain or Admiral customarily enters the wardroom by invitation only.  

The senior-most member of the mess on board a ship is designated PMC (President Mess Committee) and is the head of the wardroom.

The mess is a place for officers to let their hair down and relax in a cosy atmosphere and foster bonhomie. 

While it is courteous to show respect in a subtle manner to your seniors, the disgusting spectacle of fawning upon senior officers or appearing obsequious needs to be avoided in an officers mess.

In an officers mess  there must be absolutely no tension due to rank-consciousness

All members of the officers mess must interact freely and without inhibitions.

A good wardroom or officers mess has a stress-free happy high-spirited lively atmosphere which is conducive for promoting esprit de corps among officers. 

There is a saying: 

A Happy Wardroom is a Happy Ship

Maybe it is the same in the army and air force too  a happy officers mess indicates a happy unit.


Unfortunately  a medieval feudal culture  a legacy of our colonial past  still prevails in our armed forces  particularly in the army.

This feudal mindset breeds a VIP Culture which manifests itself in various forms in military officers messes – there is separate luxurious VIP” accommodation  separate extravagant food and exclusive booze for the so-called VIPs” – who also tend to freeload  since  like feudal lords  some senior officers mistakenly think that freeloading in their birthright.

As I said earlier  all officers belong to the same class and enjoy equal status  so  at least in military officers messes  there is no place for such VIP Culture”  and all officers  irrespective of rank  must eat the same food and enjoy the same facilities.

The next time you go to an Officers Mess – please do not forget that the abbreviation MESS stands for MAINTENANCE OF EQUAL SOCIAL STATUS

An Officers Mess is a happy place where you can forget about rank differences and interact freely and informally with your fellow officers.

I have had the best of times and made the best of friends in Navy Wardrooms and Army Officers Messes. 

From time to time  I have been telling you about my glorious days in the Navy and I am sure you have read a few of those “humour in uniform” nostalgic yarns I keep writing right here in my blog.

Till next time  Cheers and Godspeed

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Revised and updated version of my article earlier posted online by me Vikram Karve on Saturday, March 17, 2012 in my Academic and Creative Writing Journal Blog - details below:
 Vikram Karve at 3/17/2012 10:50:00 PM at url: 

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