World War I? World War II? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Years ago some military orders had to be sent via a series of radio relays. Each radio operator would listen to a command and then repeat it to the next operator in a series. If you have ever played the game “broken telephone” or “Chinese whispers” you may know the result of this process. Here is an example I heard of the initial military order and the final result:
Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.
Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.
Can you determine if there is any truth to this anecdote? During which war did this happen? I think this tale may have been created before radio communication was common.
Quote Investigator: There are several interrelated stories about garbled communication during military exercises. The content of the messages varies, but the tales probably share a common ancestor because the message text overlaps. For example, the transformation of the phrase “send reinforcements” into “send three and fourpence” is a common feature of several anecdotes. The earliest version found by QI was published in 1914 under the title “Altered in Transit” in the “Temperance Caterer” periodical of London. This story may reflect the wishful thinking of hungry soldiers [HSTC]:
Whilst on manoeuvres, a brigadier commanding a certain brigade stationed in Aldershot passed the word to the nearest colonel to him :—
“Enemy advancing from the left flank. Send reinforcements.”
By the time it reached the end of the right flank the message was received :—
“Enemy advancing with ham-shanks. Send three and fourpence!”
A version similar to the one given by the questioner appeared by 1916. Over time the tale spinners exercised substantial creativity, and the messages started to refer to wild Italians and pressing pants. Some versions in the United States localized the currency and spoke of cents instead of pence.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The tale quickly moved across the Atlantic and appeared in the Boston Globe in January of 1915. The story was presented as non-fiction, but the editors acknowledged that a humorist must have been involved [HSBG]:
The soldiers of Kipling’s million, drilling at Salisbury, have been trying passing a message from man to man through a long line of sentinels again, with the result that a message that left the right flank worded: “Enemy advancing on right flank; send reinforcements.” reached the left flank worded: “Enemy advancing with ham-shank; send three-and-fourpence.” Somewhere along the line there was a humorist.
The ham-shank variant of the tale was distributed in multiple newspapers in 1915. But by 1916 another story was being told. Here is an article from the “Marlborough Express” of New Zealand [GDME]:
One of the methods of communicating from one officer to another in the trenches of the present great war is to give the message to one of the privates and tell him to pass the word along the line until it reached its destination, viz., the officer at the other end.
The following story will show how a serious message can be distorted on its journey from mouth to mouth:— Lieutenant A., in charge of one end of the British line told the private in front to pass the word along to Lieutenant B.: “We are going to advance, can you send us reinforcements?” When Lieutenant B. received the message it was like this: “We are going to a dance, can you lend us three and fourpence?”
In 1918 a memoir of a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces was published, and it contained an entertaining variant presented as non-fiction [HBWI]:
Of the utmost importance was the carrying and delivering of messages correctly. An amusing instance of the difficulty of doing this occurred while being trained. We were running at relays and we would do our work exactly as it would be done in the heat of battle, and the first man was given the message, “To O.C. Seventh Battalion: Am held up by barbed wire entanglements; send reinforcements to my right.” When the message was delivered by the seventh and last man of the relay, the officer receiving it got the following astounding information, “Am surrounded by wild Italians; lend me three- and fourpence till tonight.”
In 1925 a report under the title “Now It Can Be Told” appeared in a syndicated humor column. The prefatory comment gave a date and a claim of veracity: “The following incident happened in a big military camp in England in 1916″ [FSWC]:
On this day the Sergeant started the message at one end with: “Col. Lang is going to advance. Send reinforcements.”
When the Sergeant got to the other end of the line the men there seemed unable to keep their faces straight.
“Well,” asked the Sergeant, “what is the message?”
Said the last man with a broad grin and an Irish brogue: “Sure Sergeant, Col. Lang is going to a dance; send his pants to be pressed!”
The story was printed in Boys’ Life magazine multiple times from the 1930s to the 1960s. In 1938 the magazine described the message passing game and then gave an example of a garbled message with U.S. currency [BLFC]:
It may be about as bad as that presented to an army officer once by a breathless messenger who had just made his way in through the firing lines: “Lieutenant Brown reports: ‘We are going to a dance. Send three or four cents!’”
But Lieutenant Brown meant nothing of the kind. His original message was: “We are going to advance. Send reinforcements.”
A report in 1943 moved the anecdote forward into World War II. A Pittsburgh Press article described a CBS television broadcast that recounted the transposed classic tale [CBPP]:
Chester Morrison related it the other night on his regular broadcast from Cairo. Seems the messenger clicked his heels smartly and said to the colonel: “The Major’s compliments, sir, and he wants three and fourpence. He’s going to a dance.” The colonel was not pleased. “What’s this about a dance?” he thundered. The message when unscrambled much later read: “Going to advance. Send reinforcements.”
In conclusion, the phenomenon of messages being transmuted during relays is well-known. It is possible that exercises were conducted with soldiers in 1914 or before and humorously distorted messages were created. Hence, there may be an underlying founding incident. Yet, the cleverness of many of these anecdotes suggests fabrication. And QI thinks some variants were consciously constructed by altering pre-existing stories.
(Many thanks to Tony Fleming for asking about this fun anecdote and motivating this exploration.)
[HSTC] 1914 October 15, The Temperance Caterer, Altered in Transit, Page 78, Column 2, NA Page 16, London, Middlesex. (NewspaperArchive)
[HSBG] 1915 January 6, Boston Globe, Editorial Points: Just what is the Explanation, Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
[GDME] 1916 February 22, Marlborough Express, Notes, Page 5, Column 5, Volume L, Issue 44, Blenheim, New Zealand. (Google News Archive; PapersPast)
[HBWI] 1918, Holding the Line by Harold Baldwin, [Sergeant Harold Baldwin of the First Division, Canadian Expeditionary Forces], Page 128, A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago. (Google Books full view) link
[FSWC] 1925 July 27, Manitoba Free Press [Winnipeg Free Press], The Fun Shop edited by Maxson Foxhall Judell, Page 7, Column 2, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
[BLFC] 1938 April, Boys’ Life, Hiking With Green Bar Bill, Page 47, Column 2, Volume 28, Number 4, Published by Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
[CBPP] 1943 March 28, Pittsburgh Press, Matter Of Code, Fourth Section, Page 5, GNA Page 53, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)