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Florentia Sale and the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul in 1842
By Michael Scott

It is a pity Mike Scott did not write this book before the US, the UK and its allies invaded Afghanistan in ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in 2001. It would have made for salutary reading by both politicians and senior military commanders; they would have had a much better grasp of what they were letting themselves in for.

Mike Scott’s rigorously researched and well written book tells the tale of one of the most ignominious episodes in British military history. It makes the Fall of Singapore in 1942 look tame in its incompetence.

By the early 19th century, Britain’s economic expansion in the Far East through its commercial enterprise, the East India Company, had almost reached its zenith. It was an enterprise known as ‘ The Great Game’ with vast amounts of money at stake. The East India Company, backed up by a formidable army, was not afraid to crush any threat to its hegemony. Needless to say, Russia, the other player in ‘ The Great Game’, wanted a slice of the action and was pushing forward through Afghanistan to reach the riches of the Indian sub-continent. The British decided to set up a garrison in Kabul to protect its interests.

The British made two fatal errors. First, it decided to establish its garrison in cantonments outside Kabul’s city walls. Some 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers were billeted there. Kabul was   kept free for carousing by the British soldiers, soirees for senior officers and their wives, and ostentatious displays of British power and wealth. This decision ensured that Kabul, largely unpoliced, became a hotbed of unrest and murderous intrigue.

Second, it appointed General Elphinstone in command. Elphinstone, who’d had a good Waterloo commanding the 33rd of Foot, but a quarter of a century had passed, and the salons of Mayfair were no preparation for the ordeals and double-dealing of Afghanistan. He was not unlike the supremely incompetent General Percival responsible for Singapore’s defence in 1942.

The British Government (effectively the East India Company), increasingly dismayed by the costs of the Kabul Garrison, stopped paying money to the tribes to keep the passes open from India to Kabul. They were also paid bribes to keep quiet and not create trouble. Kabul became a city of growing unrest. Indiscriminate slaughter of both soldiers and camp followers by Afghan tribesmen became more frequent. With food, ammunition, and essential supplies running low, Elphinstone negotiated what he thought would be an orderly withdrawal to the garrison at Jalalabad, 90 miles to the East.
It is against this ominous background that the author narrates the tale of the book’s principal character, the redoubtable Florentia Sale. We have seen her like before, one of those legions of remarkable British women, largely unsung, who have steeled their menfolk to the task of empire. Florentia was the original ‘Memsahib’, the Indian term given to a married white or upper-class woman who possesses natural authority. Curiously, it is a term of endearment still used today by a certain type of Englishman in deference to his better half.

Florentia was married to Elphinstone’s second in command, Brigadier ‘Fighting Bob’ Sale. As his sobriquet suggests, he was a born warrior and had learnt his trade under Colonel Arthur Wellesley (the Great Duke). He had, however none of the political acumen, common sense and foresight of his steadfast wife. Bob Sale and his brigade was sent back to Jalalabad and Florentia was left in Kabul to witness the garrison’s murderous destruction, its surrender and the catastrophic retreat from Kabul which began on 6th January 1842. It makes for grim reading.

There were guarantees of ‘safe passage’ from many a smooth tongued and jovial Afghan, but they amounted to nothing except for betrayal. By 11th January, some 200 men out of an original force of 4,500 were left. The camp followers were either slaughtered or died of malnutrition and cold. There was one last heroic stand by 20 officers and 45 soldiers of the 44th of Foot at Gandamack on 13th January. Only one man, Dr Brydon, an assistant surgeon,  reached Jalalabad. His name was immortalised in Lady Elisabeth Butler’s painting, The Remnants of an Army.

Florentia Sale was kidnapped with 100 women and children and held in captivity as ransom. Their eventual rescue, after unimaginable privation, came nine months later in September 1842. Her tale is one of extraordinary fortitude. Florentia is a lodestar for women today.

It is to the author’s credit that he paints the ghastly train of events in a brutally vivid way without losing sight of factual objectivity in recording what took place. Nevertheless, one reaches the end of Mike Scott’s narrative haunted by the thought of what the retreat must have been like.

It is also the author’s acclaim that his sympathetic word portraits of Florentia and her family bring the reader into the narrative so effectively. It is not an easy feat to convey this feeling of shared humanity with events which took place over 180 years ago.

The author allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the disastrous retreat from Kabul. Men remembered the retreat from Kabul. India remembered the British Army’s defeat at Kabul. Fifteen years later in 1857, the Indian Mutiny took place.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 contributed to communism’s collapse a decade later. In 2003, the Fourth Afghan War began under the name ‘Operation Herrick’. The world, in particular China, took notice of the limitations of the Western military power and resources. We have yet to see the long-term implications of this, but many agree that world stability is further away than ever. Afghanistan truly is a graveyard for ill-conceived adventures.

Many readers will be familiar with the events of 1842 through George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books, a thoroughly entertaining read. Mike Scott’s excellent book describes the true picture of what took place. It makes for equally good reading but in a much graver vein.

Paul de Zulueta

Published by Lume Books (www.lumebooks.co.uk) and available on Amazon at £7.99











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