By Theodor Fontane
Snow like powder from the sky softly falls,
When before Djelalabad a rider halts.
“Who’s there” – “A cavalrist from Britain’s army
A message from Afghanistan I carry.”
Afghanistan. So weakly he’d said.
Half the town around him had met;
The British commander, Sir Robert Sale,
Helped to dismount the man whose face was so pale.
Into a guard-house they guided him
And made him sit at the fire’s brim;
How warm was the fire, how bright was its shine,
He takes a deep breath, and begins to explain.
“Thirteen thousand men we had been,
When our outset from Kabul was seen –
Now soldiers, leaders, women and bairn
They are betrayed, and frozen and slain.
“Dispersed is the entire host,
Who is alive, in the darkness is lost.
A God to me salvation has sent –
To save the rest you may make an attempt.”
Sir Robert ascends the castle wall,
And soldiers and officers follow him all,
Sir Robert speaks: “How dense the snow falls,
How hard they may seek, they’ll never see the walls.
“Like blindfold they’ll err and yet are so near,
The way to their safety, now let it them hear,
Play songs of old, of the homeland so bright;
Bugler, let thy tune carry far in the night.”
And they played and sang, and time passed by,
Song over song through the night they let fly,
The songs of their home so far and so dear,
And old Highland laments so mournful to hear.
They played all night and the following day,
They played like only love made them play;
The songs were still heard, but darkness did fall.
In vain is your watch, in vain is your call.
Those who should hear, they’ll hear nevermore,
Destroyed, dispersed is the proud host of yore;
With thirteen thousand their trail they began.
Only one man returned from Afghanistan.
Translation by Gabriele Campbell, 2010;
All rights reserved.
Theodor Fontane (1819-1898) is widely regarded as the first master of modern realistic fiction in Germany. The present poem, Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan, was written in 1847/8 and refers to the massacre of Elphinstone’s army, suffered by the British in January 1842, during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). The return of the sole survivor, William Brydon, an assistant surgeon, is also depicted in the above painting, The Remnants of an Army (1879), by Elizabeth Thompson (photo: Wikimedia Commons).
Gabriele Campbell has an MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, and is a writer of historical fiction and an occasional translator of poetry. She blogs at The Lost Fort.