The snow falls gently and powdery from the sky,
A rider halts before Jalalabad
“Who’s there?” — “A British cavalryman,
I bring word from Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan! he said it so blandly;
Half the city crowds around the rider,
Sir Robert Sale, the commandant,
Who dismounts without assistance.

They guide him into the stone guard house,
They sit him down by the fireplace,
As the fire warms him, as the light refreshes him,
He breathes deep and give thanks and says:

“We were thirteen thousand men,
Our troop set out from Kabul,
Soldiers, leaders, woman, and child,
Are gathered, betrayed, and slayed.

“Our entire army has been routed,
Those who remain are wandering out there in the night,
A god has deigned to save me,
Let’s see whether you can save the rest.”

Sir Robert mounted the wall of the rampart,
The officers and soldiers all followed him,
Sir Robert spoke: “The snow is falling thick,
Those who are seeking us can’t find us.”

“They wander like blindmen yet are so close,
So let them hear that we’re here,
Strike up a song of hearth and homeland,
Trumpeters, blast out into the night!”

Then they started up and wouldn’t tire,
The whole night through, songs upon songs rang out,
First English songs with a cheery sound,
Then Highland songs like a lamentation.

They played through the night and into the day,
Loud, as only love might call out,
They played — the second night came,
But in vain you call, in vain you keep watch.

They who should hear, hear no more,
Destroyed is the entire army,
The ranks started out with thirteen thousand,
One came home from Afghanistan.


Note: Theodor Fontane’s poem ‘Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan’. First published in 1848, it tells the story of the sole survivor of a massacre suffered by the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) in January 1842.In German the poem’s stanzas each follow an AABB rhyme scheme. See Blog: