Song of the Royal Engineers

The Corps Song, “Hurrah for the CRE”, which is sung heartily by Blythe Sappers at all their social events, originated among RE units during service in Southern Africa, and most probably achieved popularity during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Its singing is usually associated with informal social occasions, but there are no particular traditions requiring it to be sung. The words, partly in English and partly in a form of Zulu,
are sung to the tune of the traditional South African song “Daer de die ding”. The “CRE” referred to is the Corps of Royal Engineers.

The words are:
Good Morning Mr Stevens and Windy Notchy Knight,
Hurrah for the CRE
We’re working very hard down at Upnor Hard,
Hurrah for the CRE
You make fast, I make fast, make fast the dinghy,
Make fast the dinghy, make fast the dinghy,
You make fast, I make fast, make fast the dinghy,
Make fast the dinghy pontoon.
For we’re marching on to Laffan’s Plain,
To Laffan’s Plain, to Laffan’s Plain,
Yes we’re marching on to Laffan’s Plain
Where they don’t know mud from clay.
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,
Ooshta, ooshta, ooshta, ooshta,
Ikona malee, picaninny skoff,
Ma-ninga sabenza, here’s another off.
Oolum-da cried Matabele,
Oolum-da, away we go.
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,
Shush ………………….. HURRAH!

Mr Stevens and “Windy” Notchy Knight were well known Corps characters on the staff of the School of Military Engineering (SME) at Chatham in the late 19th century. ‘Windy’ refers to the latter being very talkative. Laffan’s Plain, near Farnborough, was a popular field training area for the Aldershot Command and visiting units. The Zulu words are an almost certainly justifiable complaint that there is too much work for too low wages and little food, and they are leaving.

The literal meanings are:
Ooshta: A rhythmic working cry, intended to encourage progress during manual work
Ikona malee: Not enough money (or pay)
Picaninny skoff : Too little food, or food only suitable for small children due to lack of meat. Picaninny was a colloquial word for babies or toddlers at that time. It was normally used affectionately.
Ma-ninga sabenza: Lots of, or too much, work
Oolum-da: A ‘native’ phrase, intended in the song to infer apparent if
not actual cheerfulness
Matabele Or Ndebele: A tribe of the Nguni group of peoples, with linguistic and cultural links to the Zulus. They often migrated in from the emergent colony of Rhodesia, seeking paid employment.