Week 409: 51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily, by Hamish Henderson

When you first read this poem, written during the Second World War, you may be forgiven for wondering if half of it is written in Scots Gaelic, but no, it’s English, Jim, just not as we Sassenachs know it, and a little persistence and recourse to a glossary (see foot of poem) soon sorts it out, to reveal a wistful, complex, ambivalent poem of leavetaking. The war-weary swaddies (soldiers) are not sorry to be leaving Sicily, and yet there are things about it they will miss: this alien land has become something of a home for them, offering bright rooms, wine and kindly women, and the music of the pipes as they leave chimes with the mood of that strange grey sky over the Strait of Messina in a lament for days of comradeship and adventure. This rather ties in with the experiences of men that I knew when I was young, who had served in the Second World War. They seemed to be evenly split between those who had loathed the whole brutal experience and simply wanted to forget it and those who had had, or claimed to have had, the time of their lives and were finding peacetime existence something of an anticlimax. Maybe the latter were those who had never seen action, but this did not always seem to be the case; maybe they were just whistling in the dark, but again, that did not always seem to be true. It was all a bit morally confusing.  There is a great pipe tune to go with the words. Of the singers who have covered the song, I think Dick Gaughan deserves a special mention. 

51st Highland Division’s Farewell To Sicily

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey
He wullnae come round for his vino the day
The sky o’er Messina is unco an’ grey
An’ a’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn the ferry’s awa’
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Fareweel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw
There’s nae name can smoor the wiles o’ ye
Puir bliddy swaddies are weary

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae be seen for his webbin’ ava
He’s beezed himsel’ up for a photy an’ a’
Tae leave with his Lola, his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye shielin’ an’ ha’
We’ll a mind shebeens an’ bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie

Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
Leave your kit this side o’ the wa’
Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie

Hamish Henderson

pipie = pipe major
dozie = sleepy
vino = wine
fey = acting in a strange manner, as if having a presentiment
unco = strange, unusual
chaulmers = rooms
shaw = wood
kyles = straits
smoor the wiles = obliterate (literally smother) your fascination (one smoors a fire)
drummie = drum major
beezed = polished (beezin =  spit and polish)
we’ll a mind = we’ll all remember
shielin = hut
byres and bothies = cow sheds and cottages
shebeens = boozers, drinking dens
whaur = where

Week 212: Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers, by Harry Pynn/Hamish Henderson

This poem is perhaps best known for having entered the folk tradition, where it is sung to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’, but it is well able to stand on its own as a masterpiece of ironic invective. The background is that the Conservative MP Lady Astor is alleged to have referred to soldiers of the 8th Army, who were fighting in Italy, as ‘D-Day Dodgers’, since they were not to be involved in the action in Normandy (to be fair, she denied having said any such thing, but let’s not give her the benefit of the doubt…). Unfortunately for her this came to the notice of a certain Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn of the Tank Rescue Section, 19 Army Fire Brigade, who was out in Italy with the 78th Infantry Division, and penned this response. The poem is also attributed to the Scots writer Hamish Henderson, but it may be that he merely collected various versions of it; I suspect, however, that Henderson, himself a notable poet of whom more one day, may well have honed the original somewhat. 

There are many variants on the words, and I have not been able to pin down the original text, so present what I think is the most trenchant version. In this we get four stanzas of withering sarcasm chronicling the bitter campaign fought by the Eighth Army as it made its way northward up Italy, followed by one stanza of good old-fashioned flyting, before the poem suddenly changes tone completely to finally demolish the lady’s assertion with a hauntingly elegiac last stanza. 

I am no social historian, but it is tempting to see in this poem much of the mood of that remarkable year, 1945, in which a public weary of patronage, deference and rhetoric unceremoniously dumped Churchill and his Tory government in favour of a new order. 

Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers

We’re the D-Day Dodgers, way off in Italy
Always on the vino, always on the spree;
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome, among the Yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.

We landed in Salerno, a holiday with pay,
The Jerries brought the bands out to greet us on the way.
Showed us the sights and gave us tea,
We all sang songs, the beer was free
To welcome D-Day Dodgers to sunny Italy.

Naples and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there, we went just for the ride.
Anzio and Sangro were just names,
We only went to look for dames,
The artful D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy.

On our way to Florence we had a lovely time.
We ran a bus to Rimini right through the Gothic Line.
On to  Bologna we did go,
Then we all had a paddle in the Po.
For we are the D-Day Dodgers, out here in Italy.

Dear Lady Astor, you think you know a lot,
Standing on a platform, talking tommyrot.
You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride.
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide.
That’s from your D-Day Dodgers, in sunny Italy.

Look around the mountains, in the mud and rain,
You’ll find the scattered crosses, there’s some that have no name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone,
The boys beneath them slumber on.
They are the D-Day Dodgers who stay in Italy.

Harry Pynn/Hamish Henderson/folk tradition