Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


11.11.06
  The Tragedy of Afghanistan - A Poem

A poem by Theodor Fontane, translated by me. And one of these days I'll figure out what battle Fontane meant - I only know it involved the British army.

Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan

Snow like powder from the sky softly falls,
When before Djelalabad a rider halts.
"Who's there" - "A caval'rist from Britains 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 who's 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.


A link to the German original can be found here.
 
Comments:
What a lovely translation, Gabriele. Another gorgeous photo, too.
 
Thank you. This translation actually worked out well - I seldom manage to keep the rhythm and rhyme of a ballad, often I have to give up on the rhyme. After all, it should be close to the oriignal words, too.
 
I can help you with figuring out the battle. It sounds like the disaster in the winter of 1841/1842, when the British garrison in Kabul were thrown out in spectacular style by an Afghan insurgency led by Mohammed Akbar Khan, son of the previous Afghan leader Dost Mohammed who had been exiled by the British the previous year. In November 1841 the Afghans attacked the British embassy and emcampments in and around Kabul. Some of the garrison was killed, the rest held out in a makeshift siege in the not-very-well-fortified cantonments. Badly led by an elderly general who had been hoping for a quiet life (!), the British seemed to be incapable of putting up any effective fight. On January 6 1842 the elderly general (Elphinstone) agreed with Akbar that the remainder of the British garrison would leave Kabul and walk through the Himalayan passes to British India, under a promise of safe conduct from Akbar. No safe conduct materialised, and the straggling British column - which included civilians, women and children, as the Kabul garrison had had more of the character of a town than a military camp - was attacked by Afghan tribesemen in the high passes. Many were killed and the rest died of cold and hunger. There was only one survivor from the 16,000 people who left Kabul, a physician called Dr Brydon who staggered, severely wounded, into the British fort of Jalalabad, near the border between Afghanistan and British India, on 13 January 1842. Everyone else had been killed en route. The pass was still full of skeletons the following July, when a British army fought its way back to Kabul and retook the city - and then agreed to accept Dost Mohammed back on the throne, which if they had been prepared to accept that a year earlier would have avoided the whole conflict.
 
I believe Carla has named the incident: the retreat from Kabul.
 
Thanks, Carla, for the info. I was just too dang lazy to look it up, and it's not my time. Which is just well, because this would look like a bunch of big, furry plotbunnies else. :)

I suppose you get the British colonies fed at school. Germany never had many of these, and the whole thing is usually done with by, 'the English and French suppressed the people in India and Africa.' ;)
 
Oh, very definitely! Plot yetis in this case, perhaps? I thought about a story set there, but I rather think I couldn't add anything to Kipling. Besides, it's one of those eras where the non-fiction accounts are more gripping than many novels.

I don't think there was ever anything about the colonies in the school history that I did. Until very recently it was ignored, not politically correct, I suppose - as if ignoring difficult things made them go away.

It seems to me to have striking parallels with the Roman Empire in north-west Europe. Couldn't you just imagine that poem having been written after the Teutoberg Forest disaster?
 
Kipling wrote about it? Have to look that up.

Lol, the parallels with the Teutoburg desaster are indeed striking. A not very capable, elderly general (Elphinstone / Varus), a trap, bad weather (rain insted of snow) an inimical country (mountains / bogs and woods), few survivors (Dr. Brydon / Cassius Chaerea?), and in the end it's back to status quo ante (Dost Mohammad back on the throne / Germania Transrhenania remains a free country).

What was that about history repeats itself? *grin*
 
I always think of Kipling's Kim as a novel essentially about the Great Game, of which Kabul was a part. And his short story The Man Who Would Be King captures some of the culture of the hill tribes, though I think it's set in a neighbouring territory rather than in Afghanistan itself (can never remember where the Hindu Kush is in relation to modern country borders).
 
I can't imagine the complications that go into translating literature. Congratulations, Gabriele. It works beautifully.

I can read Italian and Spanish far better than I can speak or understand it spoken. Even then it takes me a while to comprehende. Thanks for letting us get a feel for someone elses poetry. :)
 
Thank you, Constance. Translating poetry is a challenge and it seldom works out as well as in this example. Sometimes, I can convey the atmosphere of a poem, but not the rhyme and/or words. There are a few more linked on my sidebar under Important Blog Entries - Literatura. :)
 
A tremendous poem. Thanks for sharing. Have you read Stephen Pressfield's new book "The AFghan Campaigns"? It takes place in Alexander's time but it could be now (or at the time the poem was written about.) Quite gripping.
(and guess who he dedicated it to?)
 
Thank you, Wynn. No, I haven't read Pressfield's latest book yet - to whom does he dedicate it?
 
That was a lovely poem, do you have it in the original language? A good version of the march is The Fierce Pawns by Patrick Macrory.
 
History is repeating itself. Instead of English, it's now Americans though for Afghans, it's the same enemy.
If Americans were "Clever" enough to read the history of afghans, they would have never thought about invading afghanistan. Afghans are no Iraqi's... Time will make them realize their mistake but till than they would have the same fate like USSR... SAD...
 
"...When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

- Rudyard Kipling
 
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Miscellaneous musings of an aspiring Historical Fiction author. Illustrated essays on Roman, Dark Age and Mediaeval history, Mediaeval literature, and Geology. Some poetry translations and writing stuff. And lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes from Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a writer of Historical Fiction living in Germany. I got a MA in Literature, Scandinavian Studies, Linguistics and History, I'm interested in Archaeology and everything Roman and Mediaeval, an avid reader, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, and photographer.


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