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.