The ability to compose a short, concise, easily intelligible dispatch is one of the key attributes of any military commander. After all the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade was the direct result of a vague order. However brevity can also become an opportunity for wit, even within the sphere of military operations. These are some of the shortest, wittiest dispatches ever sent by military commanders.
One day in the early 1790s, Sir Robert Boyd, the governor of the English possession of Gibraltar, discovered that the fleet heading back to England might set sail before he would have a chance to get his letters on board. On the spot he scribbled a three word order to his agent in London, a certain Mr Browne, outlining his most pressing and immediate need. The note read as follows: “Browne – Beef – Boyd”. When the English fleet carrying the required meat returned to Gibraltar, it brought Mr Browne’s equally curt reply: “Boyd – Beef – Browne”.
One of the most famous and tersely witty military telegrams of all time was sent by General Charles Napier, a career soldier who had fought in the Peninsular War. In 1841, at the age of 59, he had been sent to the Bombay Presidency in British India by the Directors of the British East India Company. The following year Napier had been appointed Major General to the command of the Indian Army in this province. His orders were to quell an insurrection in Sindh Province by the local Muslim rulers, who had remained hostile to the British in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Even though these orders did not explicitly include the invasion of Sindh (indeed Gladstone, the Prime Minister of England, and several directors of the British East India Company opposed such a move as a dangerous over extension of their interests in India), and despite the fact that Napier declared that “we have no right to seize Sindh, yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful and humane piece of rascality it will be,” Napier chose to put aside morality for what he hoped would be a fortune in prize money.
To provide a casus belli for his invasion, the general decided to drive the eighteen or so amirs who ruled Sindh into declaring war by insisting that they sign new, purposefully onerous treaties with the British Empire. The amirs duly declared war and Napier met them at the Battle of Miani, where the general’s force of 2,200 men managed to defeat the 20,000 soldiers of the Talpur amirs of Sindh. Shortly after Napier’s army captured the capital of Hyderabad and subjugated the entirety of Sindh province, annexing it to its eastern neighbours. The general’s victory was complete and stunning. Napier sent a one-word telegram back to the Court of Directors of the British East India Company to announce his victory. The single word telegram read “Peccavi,” the Latin word for “I have sinned,” both a pun on “I have Sindh” and a recognition of the morally questionable nature of his conquest.
Though there remains doubt as to whether Napier’s telegram was actually sent or was taken from the satirical Punch cartoon of 1842, it certainly started a trend of Latin puns among the classically educated military figures of the British Empire. In 1855, Lord Dalhousie dispatched “Vovi,” meaning “I vowed,” to announce his conquest of the state of Oudh. In 1857, Lord Clyde sent the more loquacious phrase “Nunc fortunatus sum,” meaning “I am in luck now,” to report his capture of the city of Lucknow.
Latin has since died out, but the tradition of short messages lived on, at least until the Second World War. In 1944, General Anthony McAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division troops defending Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, replied to a German surrender ultimatum with a single word: “Nuts!”.
Lastly, though not a military dispatch, the shortest telegram in the English language deserves an honourable mention. This telegram read simply “?” and was sent from Paris by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde to his publisher in England as a manner of asking how his latest book was selling. The publisher responded in the same style with “!”.
In the case of telegrams one must remember that cost was derived on a per character basis and that the entire system did not have a large bandwidth, so it was in both the sender’s and the operator’s best interest to keep messages as short as possible. In fact an entire set of code expressions were developed to do just that, an example being the word “Empanel,” which meant “this is a matter of great importance”. However the short messages like that sent by General Charles Napier stand apart, in a league of their own, immortalised not for their brevity but for being paragons of curt wit.