Story and photos by Buzz Bourdon (late the RMR 1975-82)
Westmount, Quebec – 21 November 2015: Old friends and colleagues meeting in a spirit of comradeship and warmth, characters from the past fondly remembered, stories recounted and possibly embellished, an excellent meal hallmarked by military tradition, all these themes played a part as the officers of the Royal Montreal Regiment held their 94thannual reunion dinner, on Nov. 6, 2015.
The RMR’s very first reunion dinner was held in the autumn of 1920, about 18 months after the 14th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as the RMR, was demobilized in Montreal upon its return from the First World War. The dinner was intended to bring together the serving officers of the RMR, which had been made part of the Non-Permanent Active Militia, on Apr. 1, 1920, with their friends and fellow officers from the war.
Now, 95 years later, the concept is still the same: the officers of the RMR gathering once a year, always on the Friday preceding Remembrance Day Sunday, with their friends and guests, to dine in state amid the splendours of the Officers’ Mess, in the RMR’s venerable armoury which opened on Dec. 28, 1925. The dinner has been an annual event ever since. During the Second World War, when the 1st Battalion was overseas, the officers of the Second Battalion carried on the tradition in Montreal.
This year, the officers, retired officers and their guests, 61 people in all, gathered across the parade square for cocktails in the Warrant Officers and Sergeants’ Mess. It was an opportunity to meet old friends in a relaxed setting before the more structured dinner took place.
Many of the officers were dressed in their splendid scarlet mess kit, a uniform worn for formal dinners and balls. Some retired officers wore a dinner jacket. The officers who have not yet invested in mess kit, which can cost over one thousand dollars, wore a white shirt and black bow tie with their DEU service dress uniform. All of them made a brave appearance.
Seven former commanding officers of the RMR were present: Harry Hall, who commanded the unit twice, Colin Robinson, the current honourary lieutenant-colonel, George Petrolekas, George Javornik, Paul Langlais, Toby Glickman, and Sean Nashrudi.
The current CO, and host of the dinner, LCol Jean-Francois Denis, took command of the regiment from LCol Langlais just two weeks earlier, on Oct. 25, 2015.
Other distinguished guests included Mayor Peter Trent of Westmount – who held both honourary positions in the RMR for a total of 14 years (the longest in RMR history) – and BGen David Patterson, Deputy Commander of the 4thDivision. The honourary colonel of the RMR, Andrew Molson, was present, as was LCol Richard Garber, who served in the RMR for many years before commanding the Brockville Rifles, and now serves as the Brocks’ honorary Lieutenant-Colonel.
Before the company moved to the Officers’ Mess, which was heralded by the traditional trumpet call played by MCpl Maxime Joyal, a brief tribute to the late LCol Rhett Lawson was held. LCol Lawson, who died in January, 2015, commanded the RMR from 1967-70.
Col Javornik said that LCol Lawson, besides being the godfather of the regiment, was also the soul of the RMR. “He lived it and breathed it. His love for the regiment was unconditional. We lost him in January but his memory lives on.”
According to RMR custom, there is no seating plan for the dinner, which allows friends to sit together. Those delegated to sit at the head table waited until it was their turn to walk over. Once they took their place, Maj Jung-Kwon Seo, the president of the mess committee (PMC), introduced them: LCol Nashrudi, Councillor Michael Goldwax, BGen Patterson, HCol Molson, Emilio Imbriglio (the guest of honour), LCol Denis, LCol (ret’d) Robinson, Mayor Trent, Col Petrolekas and LCol Langlais.
Also sitting at the head table was David Hart, the honorary colonel of 34 Signals Regiment, which shares the armoury with the RMR. Col Hart first joined the militia in 1936 and was awarded the Military Medal during the Second World War for bravery in battle at Dieppe in 1942. It turned out to be a busy weekend for him, as he attended his unit’s own Remembrance Day dinner the following evening, and the Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 8. Col Hart is a young and active 98.
In a silent yet poignant tribute, a small table was set with a complete place setting, to symbolize absent friends and those members of the RMR who lost their lives in two world wars.
In his 1980 book, “Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Armed Forces,” EC Russell said that “the high point of mess life is, of course, the mess dinner. One only has to participate in a well conducted mess dinner to realize how over a period of two centuries a whole series of customs, usages and rituals have been fashioned into a work of art which is a pleasure to the eye and a challenge to the mind, as well as a delight to the palate. Mess dinners are intended to be happy “family” occasions, not doleful, stuffed-shirt affairs.
He added, “Rather uniquely, they allow for camaraderie in a setting governed by formal rules of conduct. Juniors and seniors meet in the mess on a footing of social equality, though not professional equality, and in the mess, it being the home of living-in officers, the good manners of ordinary home life, such as respect and deference to one’s seniors, are very much alive. The mess dinner affords the opportunity for all members, of whatever rank and responsibility, to meet on a friendly but formal occasion.”
A Canadian Forces mess dinner features a formal structure that has stood the test of time: cocktails, grace given by a padre, the welcoming address, the dinner itself, served by attentive and professional staff, a series of toasts, regimental march pasts played by the band and addresses given by the principal guests. Those attending are expected to display decorum and good manners. The dinner is a parade for serving officers. Contentious subjects are to be avoided in case of offence. Indeed, there used to be a military tradition that the following three subjects must never be mentioned in an officers’ mess: women, politics and religion. Arguments relating from these themes often led to duels between officers in the British army, up until the 1840s.
During the four course dinner, the Band of the 6th Battalion, Royal 22e regiment, entertained those present with a selection of popular music. Among those enjoying the tunes were Anne Roy, Michael Goldwax and Richard Sun, all of the Town of Hampstead, Capt Danny Houle of the Royal 22e Regiment (he is the unit’s regular support staff officer, and the adjutant).
Also present were Maj (ret’d) Dan Faughnan and Capt (ret’d) Maureen Toohey, both of whom served in the RMR, Capt Kim Keturah Thomas, Capt Guy Marinier, Maj Francis Wight (who joined the RMR in 1975), Capt Pamela Rousseau, Sid Mimouni, Robert Johnson, Councillors Smith and Bissonnette of Pointe Claire, Allan Bird and Sue Guerin, president of the RMR Association, Branch 14, Royal Canadian Legion. The RSM of the RMR, MWO David Cochrane, was also there.
The following RMR officers were present, besides the CO: Major Seo, Captains Parker, Vincent, Furholter, Houle, Gareau and Jonasz, Lieutenants Szostak, Anani and Ruiz-Laing, Second Lieutenants Wang, Dobro, Rousseau-Filteau, Banica, Ezedin and Wembonyama, Officer Cadets Farrington, Belanzaran and Roy.
After the traditonal grace was given by a former padre of the RMR, retired LCol the Reverend John Zoellner, a Potage Parisien was served, followed by a Baluchon de canard confit aux lutins des bois. The main course was a Coeur de filet de boeuf aux cinq poivres et Brandy, gratin dauphinois, duo de legumes de saisons. An Assiette de fromages fins et ses garnitures, followed by dessert: a Ganache au chocolat praline et sa creme anglaise. Red and white wine was poured, followed by tea and coffee with dessert.
In an age-old tradition going back hundreds of years, the loyal toast to Her Majesty the Queen was given by the vice-president, Capt Grant Furholter (a former RSM of the RMR.) After Maj Seo rapped his gavel and announced, “Mr Vice, the Queen,” Capt Furholter stood and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen of Canada.” The Band played ‘God Save the Queen,’ everyone stood and drank the health of Her Majesty, who has been queen of Canada, and the United Kingdom, since Feb. 6, 1952.
Colonel David Hart, Honorary Colonel of the 34th Signals Regiment, the only Second World War veteran present, gave the toast to “Our Fallen and Missing Comrades.” Pointing out the table set for fallen comrades, he said it reminded him “…of a cousin who never returned from a thousand-bomber raid.”
Then the lights of the mess were dimmed as MCpl Joyal played the haunting ‘Last Post,’ in tribute to the fallen, followed by the ‘Reveille.’ Heads were bowed as thoughts turned to those who are no longer with us.
Honourary Colonel Andrew Molson gave the toast to the Regiment, followed by LCol Richard Garber’s toast to the RMR’s allied regiment of the British army, the Yorkshire Regiment. In 1921, the RMR formed an alliance with the West Yorkshire Regiment, which had been, in the 18thcentury, the 14th Regiment of Foot. In 1881, its designation was changed to the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own). In 1958 that designation was changed to the Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment of Yorkshire (PWORY).
Several mementoes of the West Yorkshire Regiment were in view during the dinner. A silver statue of a drummer boy, presented in 1925 to the RMR, had pride of place on the table in front of the CO. He is always there when the CO dines in state with his officers. Behind him is a drum carried by the 3rd Battalion of the 14th Foot at the battle of Waterloo, on June 18, 1815. The CO was LCol Francis Tidy. There are also two mustard pots dating from the early 19th century, engraved with the badge of the 14th Foot. They were presented to the mess in 1989 by MGen EHA Beckett, colonel of the regiment of the PWORY.
In fact, the entire north wall of the mess’s main room was ablaze with colour and tradition. The RMR’s stand of colours, its fourth in 101 years, is displayed in a case in the centre of the wall. Both the current Queen’s and Regimental Colours were presented by Gilles Lamontagne in 1989, to mark the RMR’s 75th anniversary. He was lieutenant-governor of Quebec at the time. Silver cups and trophies are housed in the cases to the sides of the colours.
After Capt Maciej Jonasz gave the toast to ‘Our Guests,’ BGen David Patterson replied with a witty rejoinder in the form of a poem:
We guests are always welcomed here
With proferred hand and offered beer,
To share in this august occasion.
A tolerated rude invasion
Of gunners, siggies, and others of course,
Why, you even welcome the reg force.
Since 1920 in this mess, 94 times, more or less.
You gather here and then recall
Those who came when country called.
We share a meal; we break the ice,
Then lose our shirts at liars’ dice
So speaking for the gathered guests,
The odd of shape, the odd of dress,
A humble thanks for the invite.
And when we head out into the night
These words around our mind will dance:
“Honi soit qui mal y pense”
To out hosts, the Royal Montreal Regiment.
Retired colonel George Javornik, who commanded 712 (Montreal) Communications Squadron, (now 34 Signals Regiment; they share the armoury with the RMR) before commanding the RMR from 1978-82, said he was “delighted to see such a strong turnout, particularly that the new CO sees us in all our splendour. How lucky he is in joining such a fine regiment.” Col Javornik also Commanded District 1 (now 34 GBC) before holding both honourary positions in the RMR from 1990-99.
Before the guest of honour, Emilio Imbriglio, followed by the CO and the honourary colonel, gave their addresses, the band played the regimental marches of the units and branches of the serving personnel present. Some of the marches included, ‘Jockey of York’ of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, ‘The British Grenadiers’ of 2 Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, ‘Vive la Canadienne’ of the Royal 22e Regiment, ‘St Catherines’ of the Royal Canadian Regiment, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ of the Brockville Rifles and the ‘Mercury March’ of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.
Of course, no RMR parade or dinner would be complete without its regimental march, ‘Ca Ira.’ The unit adopted it from the West Yorkshire Regiment, which first played it on May 22, 1793, when the latter regiment was fighting the French, at Famars, near Valencienne. The story goes that a French band was playing ‘Ca Ira,’ a bloodthirsty tune urging the execution of French aristocrats during the French Revolution, so the CO of the 14th Foot ordered his band to play it in return. “We’ll beat them to their own damned tune,” exclaimed LCol Wellbore Ellis Doyle defiantly. And they did. The march is actually a medley of ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’, ‘Ca Ira’ and the ‘Yorkshire Lass’.
Not to be outdone by the military traditions, the guest of honour, Emilio Imbriglio, gave a touching speech about his own family’s experiences in WW2 Italy and reminded the audience that it is not just soldiers who suffer in war. He ended his speech by asking the RMR officers and their guests to rise and join him in a toast in the memory of the civilians who suffer during war. Emilio then proceeded with – in bold military parlance “a frontal assault” – to steal the PMC’s gavel, to the delight of everyone in attendance. Major Seo was unfazed, as he simply produced his spare gavel that he keeps hidden for just this very type of situation. A good infantry office always has a contingency plan, after all!
Thus another reunion dinner ended, as they all have, for the past 95 years. Many of the officers and guests remained for hours, though, talking and remembering their own years in the mess and the friends they served with. For the younger officers, many of whom were attending the dinner for the first time, it was a memorable night as they began to learn about the traditions and comradeship of the mess. For the civilians, it was a rare opportunity to witness an important and rarely seen military ritual.