Leadership & Ethics

An Essay on the Operational Imperative of Messes

By Nicholas Wells November 6, 2020

Messes, whether they be an Officers, Senior Non-Commissioned Officers, Soldiers Club or a Regimental Boozer are long held organisations within the Australian Army, as well as the wider ADF and militaries throughout the world, albeit under a range of different names. Why do we have them? And do we still need them? This paper will, using two historical examples, argue that messes through their fostering of identity and therefore Esprit de Corps generate a tangible operational capability, and are therefore essential to the ongoing success of the Australian Army, and directly enable Good Soldiering. To do this it will first explore the Deputy Chief of Army’s Directive 12/18; Army Mess Policy, to provide a common understanding of terminology and linkages to Mission Command and Leadership through the lens of Good Soldiering. It will then explore the experiences of Field Marshal Slim commanding the 14th Army in Burma, and LTCOL Hal Moore commanding the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam in 1965 to demonstrate how their operational effectiveness was enhanced by the Mess. Finally it will demonstrate the enduring characteristics of messes, offering the Officers Mess of the 16th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery as a modern example to achieve the effects previously described as demonstrated during the C-RAM deployments to Operation Slipper, and more recently on Op Bushfire Assist.

The Army Mess policy of 2018, which built on the FORCOMD mess revitalisation directive under MAJGEN (Retd) Gus McLachlan, states the purpose is to ensure messes “balance contemporary conditions and challenges and delivers Army a binding institution focussed on developing Army’s leadership teams and creating resilient social groups that will sustain the unit through periods of high operational tempo”[1]. The links and direct references in this purpose statement to Esprit de Corps, operational effectiveness and the preparedness, people, profession and potential components of Good Soldiering are clear. Esprit de Corps as explained in LWD 0-2 is a “sense of pride in belonging to a unit. It is built on the foundations of morale and discipline, and can quite often prove to be a deciding factor in battle”[2]. Noting the focus on developing Army’s leadership in the DCA purpose statement, LWD 0-2 provides a recommendation on how Esprit de Corps can be generated: “Leaders can cultivate esprit de corps through, amongst other things, fostering unit traditions, recounting unique experiences common to the group, and by encouraging individuals to identify with the unit.” It is therefore clear that messes can be a powerful and useful tool in generating Esprit de Corps which has a clear, stated and easily understood operational impact.

While it is clear that the intent behind Army messes is aligned with generating Esprit de Corps, is it aligned with Good Soldiering? In short, yes. There are 16 teaming behaviours as part of Good Soldiering and all of them are able to be discussed, understood, achieved and enhanced through activities in messes. Whether it be simply sitting down to lunch and discussing the issues of the day, attending a themed party with family, a formal dinner or structured PME, messes are an absolutely appropriate venue, and in fact are ideally suited to achieving these behaviours. This is because in a mess, while rank is not removed, all members from the newest Lieutenant through to the Commanding Officer, Brigade Commander or even higher, are on equal footing as Officers of the profession of arms. This is essential in enabling the transfer of experience, contesting ideas to develop understanding and professional mastery, and ensuring that the right culture is developed and maintained throughout the organisation. It is the opinion of this author that the ability to openly and honestly contest ideas, ask questions, gain advice and generally interact with more senior members is essential in generating Esprit de Corps as well as achieving Good Soldiering, is a critical aspect of getting to know the commander to enable mission command, and is best achieved in a mess.

So while the intent from our senior leadership is clear, and well nested not only with over-arching leadership doctrine, but also Good Soldiering, is there historical proof and evidence that it actually works? Again, yes. While there are many examples, and the fact that messes still exist could be seen as evidence, this paper is going to focus on two recent examples of how messes were used during high-intensity warfighting to improve the capability of the respective Army organisation. The first example that will be explored is that of Field Marshal Sir William Slim during his time commanding the 14th Army in Burma during the Second World War. For context, while not new to the AO or conflict, Slim was promoted to the rank of General and given command of the newly formed 14th Army after the retreat from Burma. One of the key issues identified by Slim that he needed to fix was that the land, logistics and air commands were not working together in an integrated fashion which was having a direct, negative impact on the front line.

In addition to adjusting the training that his Army undertook, and the renewed focus on hygiene to reduce the impact of diseases such as malaria, Slim established routine within his HQ, and forced his staffs to come together. When describing his daily routine Slim states: "I breakfasted with the air commanders and our principle staff officers.....we all met again at lunch and usually talked shop through the meal........we would dine at seven-thirty, talked at the bar of the mess till half-past nine"[3]. What can be seen here is how Slim used the mess for both dining and relaxation purposes to bring his staff together. The impact was succinctly explained when Slim states: "we grew into a very close bother-hood, depending on one another, trusting one another, and taking as much pride in each other's triumphs as we did in our own"[4]. Additionally, the importance that Slim placed on not just workplace integration can be see when he discusses the design of the 14th Army HQ to resolve integration issues: "we pooled intelligence resources, our planners worked together, and perhaps most effective of all, the three commanders and their principle staff officers lived in the same mess"[5].

Obviously there were many aspects to Slim's success in reforming the 14th Army and leading it to victory, but it is clear that the team building that occurred in the mess between the commanders led to trust, which enabled cooperation which ultimately resulted in improved operational effectiveness. The mess was a place where Slim and his senior commanders could openly discuss problems and ideas, which enabled Slim to generate Esprit de Corps and a shared understanding of what was required and how to achieve it, which ultimately proved successful and is key to a mission command environment.

The next historical example to be discussed is that of LTCOL Hal Moore, commanding the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam in 1965. While most readers would be familiar with the movie “We were soldiers” starring Mel Gibson, the book co-authored by Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway details how the battalion was raised, trained, fought and then mourned together after their victory in the Ia Drang Valley. The 1st of the 7th is a useful example because it was a unit raised to conduct a new type of warfare (air mobile) and was a mix of conscript and volunteer soldiers, that required intimate integration with the supporting arms (artillery and pilots) as well as intense, realistic training and team building to prepare for a known conflict that was about to occur. With these training and team building requirements, a lot was required of the Commanding Officer (LTCOL Moore) to pass on as much experience as possible, as well as getting to know his officers in particular, so that they could execute his intent in his absence. Additionally, at the conclusion of the battle, LTCOL Moore identified the requirement to bring his officers together, not to celebrate, but to recognise what they had just been through. For both of these actions, Moore identified that the mess, or officers club as it’s called in the US Army was the ideal location, and Joe Galloway describes the post battle actions as follows:

“We savoured the cold beer but did not go overboard. There was no boisterous celebration of our victory; we had all lost close comrades. We gravitated in a tight circle around Colonel Moore. He could not have moved if he wanted to. The nearest men were jammed up against him like a rugby scrum. Every few minutes the four or five men closest to him would be gently edged aside and the outer circle would become the inner one, the inner circle locked eyes with the commander. Unspoken mutual respect was exchanged. All twelve or so sweating officers had learned something special about themselves and each other while serving with Hal Moore in the 7th Cavalry”[6].

As a non-commonwealth country, this is a useful example to demonstrate the broad utility of messes not just within the Australian Army, and how immediately after significant conflict, the mess can be used to recognise achievements and losses, and to reinforce teams.

So with a commander’s intent, and historical examples showing the effectiveness of messes in generating operational capability, can/is the Australian Army currently using its messes to achieve this? The author will use the 16 Regiment Officers Mess as an example of how it is still absolutely current and achieving the desired effect. The Officers Mess of 16 Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, is incredibly fortunate in that it is a single unit mess, nestled in the Adelaide Hills at Woodside Barracks, with a strong history of mess usage and a lively mess culture. What is it about this mess that allows it to be so heavily utilised, and such an integral part of 16 Regiment, RAA?

Firstly, as a result of being a single unit mess, the Officers of 16 Regt, RAA have a strong sense of ownership and belonging to the Mess. While this can certainly be achieved in area messes, it is a lot easier when every members knows each other. Every member of the mess has an equal voice when discussing ideas, and from the Commanding Officer to the youngest member (fire subbie) it is a place where discussion is regularly had to challenge ideas, share experience, develop opinions and relax. This is not something that has been easily achieved, and nor is it something that can just be “set and forget”; it takes constant engagement from the senior leadership of the mess to encourage attendance and welcome input from all members. This senior involvement and constant engagement also ensures that customs and traditions are passed on, as well as ensuring that standards are maintained and explained. This has been codified through a Mess Charter.




Secondly, being the only mess on the barracks, the Officers of the 16 Regt, RAA mess have an excellent relationship with the supporting staff who are critical to enabling it to function. This relationship with the mess staff allows the members to change almost every facet of the service being delivered depending on the event. This means that whether the mess is being used for lunch, PME, a themed event or a formal dinner, the mess provides the required services so that it is seen as not just a dining hall, but a work place, a place where people can relax, and where everyone feels welcome and wants to go. The ability to tailor services ensures the mess remains relevant, and is seen as a critical aspect to its enduring viability.     

Finally, with the above two aspects combined, it is a place that has its utility constantly confirmed and demonstrated by the senior leaders of the Regiment. Because it is used as a place to conduct PME and discuss work issues over morning tea and lunch, the utility of the mess is reinforced. Because events are planned and executed by all members, they are enjoyable and so attendance is high and recurring. Essentially, because all of the Officers want to, and are required to be involved, there is significant input, and therefore significant output. The utility and effectiveness of this is seen not just in day to day life at 16 Regt, but was recently proven during Operation Bushfire Assist 20, where the mess was a critical element in bringing together the joint and multinational 16 Regt, RAA ESF as part of JTF1111. The resilience of the mess, and its utility in bringing people together has also recently been proven again through the COVID-19 pandemic, where despite the social distancing restrictions, and working from home requirements, the mess was still alive, even coming together to conduct a virtual dining-in night from member’s homes, demonstrating that the mess is more than just the bricks and mortar building, rather an ideal.

Messes are not a new concept, and in fact we all know what they are; however, they have been used and been successful to varying degrees across not only the Army, but the ADF. This article has attempted to demonstrate that the DCA’s intent is linked to our own leadership doctrine and is grounded in history. It has then used a current example, including during domestic support operations to show how this can be achieved to hopefully help other messes develop their own unique way to achieve the intent, and most importantly, enjoy themselves at the same time. 



End Notes

[1] Deputy Chief of Army Directive 12/18 – Army Mess Policy, Pg 2 Para 7.

[2] Australian Army Land Warfare Doctrine, LWD 0-2, Leadership, Section 5-4 Esprit De Corps

[3] Slim, Field-Marshal Viscount William., Hogan, David. Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945. United States: Cooper Square Press, 2000. Pgs 212-213

[4] Slim pg 212

[5] Slim Pg 212

[6] Galloway, Joseph L., and Moore, Harold G.. We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam. United States, Open Road Media, 2012, Chapt 17.



Nicholas Wells

Nicholas Wells is an Air Defence Artillery Officer currently priveliged to be the Battery Commander of 110th Air Defence Battery at 16 Regiment, RAA. Since commissioning he has completed the normal suite of Regimental appointments within 16 Regiment, as well as at the School Artillery, RMC-D and HQ 1 Div. He is also an enthusiastic historian currently attempting to complete a Masters of War Studies through ADFA.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Your article is a timely reminder that the mess is a professional association, and its value is in networking, professional learning and personal growth, not morning teas, alcohol and gifts. We might need to reconsider these points in the COVID-19 year when traditional events have been postponed or transformed. I have heard multiple times this year that members are entitled to benefits as a return on their membership fees which is a view that I strongly dispute. The fees are an annual investment in the ongoing viability of the organisation and a demonstration of individual commitment to the organisation’s ideals. The fees are not a down payment on a year's supply of morning teas. Being a financial member of the local mess is a job requirement, not only because it is a command directive, but, as with other professions (such as doctors, accountants, lawyers and teachers), because membership offers vital opportunities to grow the profession. Material benefits should be seen as a bonus not an entitlement.

Nick, as always, your points are well argued and persuasive. However, I note that the example of 16 Regt messes, operating in splendid isolation from Woodside Barracks, also offer indications of the extant risks which exist in larger 'combined' messes: 1. Messes [must] “balance contemporary conditions and challenges and delivers Army a binding institution focussed on developing Army’s leadership teams and creating resilient social groups that will sustain the unit through periods of high operational tempo.” The DCA directive is both clear and theoretically effective, yet creates risk in practice through the consolidation of defence services on larger bases and 'Defence Precincts'. In order to create the development of effective group cultures, messes must be responsive to the needs of their lodger units. However, on a growing number of bases, they are beholden to flanking pressures, stemming from influences such as the Hamilton Review, Service Provider (Contractor) tensions, or Joint/Cultural issues. The development of 'informal' messing arrangements in 3 BDE is illustrative - unsatisfied with the Lavarack Barracks Area Messes, each of the infantry battalions developed its own Off/SNCO 'informal' mess to treat cultural and use issues, making the formal area mess, at best, superfluous (and therefore an unjustified drain on pay-checks and thereby a negative cultural factor). On joint bases such as RAAF Edinburgh, Army units are a distinct messing afterthought, resulting in 'mess' functions being conducted through working hours and the 'mess' going largely unused by Army personnel - and thereby acting against the stated intent of the DCA directive. 2. Mess leadership - as you allude to; Messes must not operate in a leadership/cultural vacuum - but instead, should be aligned by the commander (through the PMC) with a common ethos/intent. Where messing arrangements are aligned with a CoC (be it a BDE/Area Mess or Unit), this allows the imposition/reinforcement of a common culture/ethos. However, this is placed at risk at the 'boundaries;' in Joint messes or messes with a conglomerate of independent units. Simply put, culture will follow identity, and if the only shared identity is as ADF, it offers a poor basis for building meaningful unit-level cohesion: empirically, Air Force flight crew, Navy sailors, and Army personnel will have very different definitions of tempo, working conditions and the like; and attempts to support all three together tend to emphasise the different cultures rather than forming a unifying bond. Whereas this might be treated through the subordination of all personnel to a common chain of command, I suspect in practice it would still be less effective in the generation of the cohesion which is the clear purpose of the DCA directive. 3. Finally, it might be noted that Units only 'inhabit' or use Area Messes, as an efficiency measure - they are themselves free to generate internal mess routine and thereby utilise shared messes to support the DCA intent. I would rebut that, if this were true, it would have been done effectively by this point: to my knowledge, no common mess in the Army is particularly effective; with each mess routinely identified as being amongst the best (SoINF/ARMD/ARTY, OTW, 16 Regt, HQ FORCOMD) be an independent entity aligned with its CoC.

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