The British Empire Library

The Lady of Kabul: Florentia Sale and the Disastrous Retreat of 1842

by Michael Scott

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
When a movie studio next needs a story of cool-headed bravery and unbelievable survival against the odds it should look no further than the 1841/42 Afghanistan diary of Lady Florentia Sale. Add to that the recent book by Michael Scott on Lady Sale and the disastrous Kabul siege and subsequent retreat and massacre of 16,000 troops and camp followers in January 1842 and you have a drama on an epic scale. Lady Sale was a Victorian hero. She was feted on the publication of her account (it quickly went to seven editions) and dined with Queen Victoria, who described Sale in her Journal as ‘so simple, retiring & quiet, & so sensible’. Sale was a dedicated army wife to General Robert ‘Fighting Bob’ Sale, the mother of 12 children, and as former Major General Michael Scott writes, she ‘had the intelligence and shrewdness that her husband lacked’. Scott says: ‘Today, she would be a Cabinet Minister or CEO of a FTSE 100 company.’ Lady Sale’s story has it all: A garrison under siege; a daughter’s wedding; a son-in-law’s death and burial; a forced march in freezing snow; a retreating army, massacred and defeated; earthquakes; captivity; a newly born granddaughter; fear of being sold into slavery; and ultimately freedom and reunion with her husband.

Through all the deprivations and chaos of an army under siege and on retreat. Lady Sale established her reputation for bravery, leadership, intelligence-gathering (an Afghan secretly came to see her and warn of the impending massacre), the odd tumbler of whisky, and even having a musket ball removed from her arm ‘without, of course any anaesthetic’, Scott writes.

The author Michael Scott commanded the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards in the Falklands War so he’s well placed to provide a detailed military history of 1841/1842 in Kabul. By the time the retreat began in January 1842, in a foot of snow and freezing temperatures, he writes that: ‘Leadership and morale were rock bottom.’ Scott paints a vivid description of the chaos, panic and slaughter that became one of the worst defeats of the Victorian era. According to Scott: ‘On paper, the order of march looked tidy and militarily efficient but it wasn’t.’ Yet, it’s against this background that Lady Sale displayed her ‘courage and superb confidence’ and ‘was unfazed by the perils in which she found herself.

Florentia Sale was born in Madras in 1790 and in 1809 married Captain Robert Sale. She lived the typical life of a British officer’s wife in India of social events and following her husband on overseas assignments. Her husband was killed in 1844 and Lady Sale died in South Africa in July 1853. The insurrection began in Kabul on 2 November 1841 when political officer Sir Alexander Burnes was murdered. From there everything in this instalment of the ‘Great Game’ went down hill as the British faced attacks at the Bala Hissar fortress and the military cantonments. The British were promised safe passage out of Kabul to Jalalabad in the east, but the Afghan commander, Wazir Akbar Khan had other ideas. Only Lady Sale seemed to forecast and appreciate the treachery of the massacre that followed.

The retreat from Kabul became infamous for the final defeat at the village of Gandamack. There are two renowned paintings of the action. William Barns Wollen painted the last stand of the 44th Regiment (East Essex) of Foot showing Captain Thomas Souter who was spared by the Afghan forces who thought he was of some importance with the regimental colours wrapped around his waist. And ‘contrary to popular myth’ Scott writes, the only survivor of the retreat. Dr Brydon, painted by Lady Elizabeth Butler, arriving on horseback at Jalalabad. During the forced march the Afghans take hostage Lady Sale and others. Scott writes: ‘Her captors must have regretted every day they had her in their power.’ Captivity threw up all manner of difficulties and obstacles. Afghans recalled the worst earthquake in years followed by other quakes and freezing conditions. Lady Sale caught a fever. Her daughter gave birth (‘another female captive’ Lady Sale wrote). The hapless gout-ridden commander Major General Elphinstone (a Battle of Waterloo 1815 veteran) died whilst being held. Eventually, after nine months of captivity, Lady Sale is reunited with her husband and they return to England in 1843 where they are treated as heroes. Her daughter Alexandrina was killed in the 1857 mutiny. Grand-daughter Julia lived an army wife’s life as well and is buried in Somerset with ‘Born In Afghanistan’ written on her grave (see Llewelyn Morgan The Buddhas of Bamiyan published in 2015.

Having worked extensively in Kabul I can provide a few current connections to the story of Lady Sale. One of the main areas of the city is named Wazir Akbar Khan after the Afghan general who led the attack on the British. The UK’s first base on the outskirts of the city in 2002 was named Camp Souter. The area where much of the action took place in 1841, the cantonments, is today home to the US Embassy and the NATO military headquarters. The Bala Hissar fortress is still magnificent today and undergoing some excavations and restoration.

1I never came across anything directly connected to Lady Sale in Kabul but I was thrilled to discover her grave in Cape Town in 2019. The inscription on the grave includes: ‘Her heroism, her fortitude, and her patience under arduous circumstances are part of her country’s story.’ With the eye and admiration of a retired British Army general, Michael Scott captures the calm under fire she exuded and provides a much-needed account of what she faced with distinction.

British Empire Book
Michael Scott
Endeavour Media
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe