The British army began its retreat from Kabul on 6 January 1842, aiming to reach the garrison at Jallalabad 90 miles (140 km) to the east. Jallalabad had been seized by the British three years earlier (a running sore for the Afghan rebels), and was now held by troops under the command of Lady Sale's husband, Major-General 'Fighting Bob' Sale. The rebel chiefs had sworn to allow the British unimpeded passage to exit the country but, scarcely beyond their cantonment gate, the insurgents began to harass them, picking off stragglers and, soon after, attacking the rear guard.
Lady Florentia Sale, then 51 years of age, along with her pregnant daughter Alexandrina (the youngest of her eight children) rode out with the troops. Despite the ghastly conditions, she continued the diary begun four months earlier at the start of the rebellion (later published in London as A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan).
Thursday, 6th January 
We marched from Cabul. The advanced guard consisted of the 44th Queen's, 4th Irregular Horse, and Skinner's Horse, two H. A. six-pounder guns, Sappers and Miners, Mountain Train, and the late Envoy's escort. The main body included the 5th and 37th N. I.; the latter in charge of treasure; Anderson's Horse, the Shah's 6th Regiment, two II. A. six-pounder guns. The rear guard was composed of the 54th N. I., 5th Cavalry, and two six-pounder II. A. guns. The force consisted of about 4500 fighting men, and 12,000 followers.*There were a dozen women in Lady Sale’s party, and 22 children. At the start of the march they travelled with the advance troops, but this arrangement soon ended as it became clear that the Afghans had no intention of keeping to their agreement. As the retreating army plodded grimly south, parties of armed men swept down the hillsides. Frost-bitten, disorganised, impossibly positioned at the bottom of steep-sided defiles, the Kabul garrison began to die. At first in ones and twos. Then in scores, and hundreds.
The troops left cantonments both by the rear gate and the breach to the right of it, which had been made yesterday by throwing down part of the rampart to form a bridge over the ditch. All was confusion from before daylight. The day was clear and frosty; the snow nearly a foot deep on the ground; the thermometer considerably below freezing point.
On January 8th, Lady Sale reports that the enemy was keeping up a sharp fire from all sides. Several persons were killed quite close to her.
The troops were in the greatest state of disorganization: the baggage was mixed in with the advanced guard; and the camp followers all pushed ahead in their precipitate flight towards [India] . . .The pony Mrs. Sturt [her daughter] rode was wounded in the ear and neck. I had fortunately, only one ball in my arm; three others passed through my [sheepskin cloak] near the shoulder without doing me any injury. The party that fired on us were not above fifty yards from us, and we owed our escape to urging our horses on as fast as they could go over a road where, at any other time, we should have walked our horses very slowly....By now, more than half of the force was frostbitten or wounded; and most of the men, she tells us, could scarcely put a foot to the ground. At this point, the leader of the Afghan revolt -- a son of the ruler deposed by the British two years earlier -- Sirdar Akbar Khan , arrived on the scene under the flag of truce. He suggested that he take the ladies and children under his protection, house them in one of the nearby forts and later, when it was safe, escort them back to the Indian frontier.
Overwhelmed with domestic affliction [the agonizing death that day of her son-in-law, Lieut. Sturt], neither Mrs. Sturt nor I were in a fit state to decide for ourselves whether we would accept the Sirdar's protection or not. There was but faint hope of our ever getting safe to Jellalabad .... But although there was much talk regarding our going over, all I personally know of the affair is, that I was told we were all to go, and that our horses were ready, and we must mount immediately and be off.Reluctant they may have been ... but also very lucky.
Last Stand at Gandamak
On January 13th, the remnants of the British-Indian army were annihilated near Gandamak, 35 miles (56 km) from Jalalabad. This painting (left) made in 1893 gives their last stand an heroic glow but, if Lady Sale's diary is anything to go by -- after she left, derived from survivors' reports -- their end wasn't nearly so pretty.
We marched; being necessitated to leave all the servants that could not walk, the Sirdar promising that they should be fed. It would be impossible for me to describe the feelings with which we pursued our way through the dreadful scenes that awaited us. The road covered with awfully mangled bodies, all naked: fifty-eight Europeans were counted; the natives innumerable. Numbers of camp followers, still alive, frost-bitten and starving; some perfectly out of their senses and idiotic. The sight was dreadful; the smell of the blood sickening; and the corpses lay so thick it was impossible to look from them, as it required care to guide my horse so as not to tread upon the bodies.Lady Sale, her daughter, with the other ladies, children and their few surviving servants, were taken to a local fort (what we would now recognize as a fortified compound) and housed in primitive but decent conditions. Over the next few days, they were joined by a small number of wounded British officers who had been taken alive to be held as hostages or for ransom. On the 17th January, they were moved to a compound higher in the valley: Thus all hopes (faint as they were) of going to Jellalabad were annihilated; and we plainly saw that, whatever might be said, we were virtually prisoners.
There was nothing virtual about it: they were decidedly prisoners. Through that winter and well into spring, they were taken from fort to fort, sometimes higher in the mountains, sometimes further down, dragged hither and thither hard on the heels of Akbar Khan, while negotiations went on for their ransom or use as chips in exchange for British-held prisoners. All the while, too, the British outpost at Jellalabad was besieged by an Afghan force led by the same Akbar Khan. Until, after a siege lasting five months, General Sale suddenly counter-attacked, capturing the main Afghan camp, baggage, stores, guns, and horses, and the Afghans fled back to Kabul.
On 16 June, Lady Sale writes: A report prevalent amongst the Affghans that our force has marched from Jellalabad; and that we consequently shall soon be removed from hence.
Thank heavens they weren't yet on the move. On July 24th, Lady Sale dryly recorded the arrival of her granddaughter: At 2 P.M. Mrs. Sturt presented me with a grand-daughter;—another female captive.
Back to Bamiyan
On 9 August, there are more rumours: The servants have a report that we are forthwith to be taken away, to, or towards, Bokhara [beyond the Hindu Kush; now in Uzbekistan]. For two days there have been eight camels here ...in case of the [British] force coming up.
The women and children, including the new-born Julia Florentia, finally set off on the 25th, with ten British officers who were ill with fever. Among them was Lt. Vincent Eyre. They reached Bamiyan on September 3rd:
Marched at daylight [the last] seven miles to Bameean. The road wild and uneven, with narrow paths and many ascents and descents. This valley is nowhere more than a mile broad; but it is very fertile, and produces particularly fine grain.... Looking back from hence, we saw Zohak [the fortress drawn by her late son-in-law a year earlier] behind us, on a high point. At Bameean they refused to take us into the fort; and we pitched our tents just under the ancient fortress and city which were destroyed by Jhenzhis Khan; when upwards of 300,000 persons perished. The caves, ruins, and towers, extend for miles. There are two large images which have been described by former travellers: opposite to the largest was our encampment.
And that (I'm sorry to say) is all she tells us about the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Not that she was oblivious to the antiquities:
From the 5th to the 9th we made excursions to see the caves, &c. At first some difficulty was made: but about thirty men [were sent] to guard us and our pencils; for several went intent on sketching. I only copied the frescoes that were on the walls and ceiling near the large image; but Mr. Eyre made some very pretty and correct sketches of the ancient city, &c.Now Lady Sale had more on her mind than pencils: their getaway! On the morning of September 11th, a conference took place in her room between two of their Afghan captors and five British officers:
Here in the course of an hour all was settled. The gentlemen present signed their names to the paper; in which we promised to give Saleh Mahommed Khan 20,000 rupees, and to insure him 1000 rupees a month for life; and that if the government did not extricate us from this difficulty, we would be answerable for the money. Thus they held the promise of five British officers as sacred. In heading the paper, they insisted that we should do so in the name of Christ; as rendering it perfectly binding.On the 16th, the prisoners made their escape.
We marched to Killa Topchee on a fine sunshiny morning; which we hailed as a presage of the future. We were not, however, without considerable anxiety; for our present state was replete with danger. We had every reason to believe that [one of the Afghans], on leaving us, had gone to Akbar, and revealed our plans; and consequently every man we saw was suspected to be the avant courier of troops sent to reclaim us....[When we] had taken shelter under some huge masses of rock, Saleh Mahommed Khan came up to us; and speaking in Persian to Capt. Lawrence, told him that he had succeeded in getting a few muskets; which, together with ammunition, he had brought with him on a camel: and requested that he would ask the men, which of them would take them.
Capt. Lawrence then said, "Now, my lads, here's Saleh Mahommed Khan has brought arms and ammunition for some of you: who volunteers to take muskets?"
I blush to record, that a dead silence ensued. Thinking the men might be shamed into doing their duty, I said to Lawrence, "You had better give me one, and I will lead the party."Well, I think that should be her last word; don't you?
Meanwhile, back on the home front
In Britain, the fate of those hostages, writes Llewelyn Morgan in his book The Buddhas of Bamiyan, dominated public opinion in a way that has been compared to the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-1981 [though I doubt it extended to hanging yellow ribbons; stiff upper lips and all that].
On their release, the former captives, especially the tough-as-nails Lady Florentia Sale, were celebrated -- a substitute victory for the humiliating retreat from Kabul. Lady Sale became a household name to high and low in Victorian society. When her family visited Britain in 1844, landing at Lyme Regis (from a ship which the press were delighted to discover was called the 'True Briton'), Lady Sale, her husband, daughter, and granddaughter Julia were mobbed by well-wishers: “As soon as their presence became known,” according to The Times, “the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood, and the inhabitants of Lyme, vied with each other in offering their congratulations, while the church bells poured forth their merriest strains of harmony…” There were similar scenes in Londonderry, Liverpool, Southampton, and London.
Her Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, accompanied by Lt Eyre's sketches of the CABUL PRISONERS became a publishing sensation. The last three of Eyre's images were of Bamiyan, one for each of the Buddhas and a fold-out panorama of the cliff face (reproduced centre, above). In this strange way, the crisis that gripped the British nation hugely contributed to the growing celebrity of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan
by Llewelyn Morgan
Published in the U.K. by Profile Books
In the U.S.A. by Harvard University Press
$19.95 • £14.95 • €18.00
Publication June 2012
Also Available As
* Thousands of grooms, cooks, sweepers, dog-handlers, water-carriers and other non-combatants who were considered essential to an Indian army on the move.
Sources. Besides Llewelyn Morgan's Buddhas of Bamiyan, and his webpage which focuses on the fates of Lady Sale's daughter and grand-daughter, I have made great use of Lady Sale's journals, freely available online: the first volume (in replica) covers the rebellion in Kabul, the second the disastrous retreat, and the third her captivity.
Top: Portrait of Lady Sale (CABUL PRISONERS) by Vincent Eyre. Note her wearing a turban. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Galleries.
Middle left (above): The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak, painted by William Barnes Wollenin 1898. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
Middle left (below): Prison Scene (CABUL PRISONERS) by Vincent Eyre. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Galleries.
Lower centre: Caves of Bameean (CABUL PRISONERS) by Vincent Eyre. Photograph courtesy of Leicester Galleries.
Below left: A painting of Lady Florentia Sale escaping from Kabul on horse (1844), by Richard Thomas Bott. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
Updated 2 December 2012
Taliban attack NATO base at Jalalabad for the third time this year.
Suicide attackers storm an airfield in Jalalabad, using car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.
Jalalabad: Now why does that ring a bell? Spelling's changed, weapons changed, but history marches on: