Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Earthquakes as Usual - Lady Sale and the Retreat from Kabul 1842

What is it about the Brits and their Memsahibs? Do we attribute it to bravery or bloody mindedness their steadfast refusal to be unruffled, or to assume that wherever they are in the Empire, they can behave like they're in Surrey dealing with a minor problem with the servants, when in fact, they're on the roof of the world being shot at by the natives?

From the journal of Lady Sale, published by John Murray in 1843

23rd November 1841

"I had taken up my post of observation, as usual, on the top of the house, whence I had a fine view of the field of action and where, by keeping behind the chimneys, I escaped the bullets that continually whizzed past me"

The fight continued till about ten o'clock, by which time our killed and wounded became very numerous. The fire of the enemy told considerably more than ours did, from the superiority of their juzails and jingals over our muskets. The Afghans fought from behind sungahs and hillocks, whilst our men were perfectly exposed, labouring under the disadvantage of being drawn up in square, from an apprehension of an attack from the Afghan cavalry...

(It's like she's dissecting a poor showing from the England bowling attack...insufficient attention being paid to line and length...she continues)

It was very much like the scenes depicted in the battles of the Crusaders. The enemy rushed on: drove our men before them very like a flock of sheep with a wolf at their heels...All appearing to be over, I hastened home to get breakfast ready."

(Full English, presumably. Never mind. Roll on Crimbo)

25th December1841

A dismal Christmas day, and our situation far from cheering."

Far from cheering, she says, entirely surrounded....On Thursday sixth of January 1843, accepting the inevitable, with the commander, Lord Elphinstone, incapacitated by illness, and Burnes and McNaghten, the political officers, dismembered and on display in the town, the British garrison, 4500 men and 12000 followers, began the the long, terrible, doomed retreat from Kabul. Immediately, any illusions of safe passage, or of British pluck being enough to see anyone through,were violently and cruelly disabused, with Lady Sale's own family among the immediate casualties.

On the eighth, she recounts that

"We commenced our march about mid-day...we had not proceeded half a mile when we were heavily fired upon...poor Sturt rode back (to see after Thain, I believe): his horse was shot from under him, and before he could rise from the ground, he received a severe wound in the abdomen...the pony Mrs Sturt rode was wounded in the ear and neck. I had fortunately only one ball in my arm, three others passed through my poshteen near the shoulder without doing me any injury. Fortunate it was for Mrs Sturt and myself that we kept with the chiefs. Would to God that Sturt had done likewise, and not gone back....

Sturt had only recently recovered from the injuries he sustained on the night the insurrection began, two months before)

Lady Sale continues:

9th January. Mrs Trevor kindly rode a pony and gave up her place in the kajava to Sturt, who must otherwise have been left to die upon the ground. The rough motion increased his suffering and accelerated his death; but he was still conscious that his wife and I were with him; and we had the sorrowful satisfaction of giving him Christian burial.

In her the entry for the tenth, Lady Sale tells us that both order and hope have already vanished in the snows "No sooner was it light than the usual rush to the front was made by the mixed rabble of camp followers, Sipahees and Europeans in one huge mass. Hundreds of poor wretches, unable to seize any animals for themselves, or despoiled by stronger persons of those they had, were left on the road to die or be butchered."

Lady Sale and her daughter survived only as hostages of Akhbar Khan. . Of those who remained with the column attempting to reach Jellalabad, only one Englishman, a doctor called Brydon, got there alive. The British Army had lost, in a single action, 15000 souls.

At this time, I'm not going to go into Lady Sales experience of captivity or her eventual release, along with her notes for this amazing journal. Let's say goodbye to her, for the purposes of this blog anyway, with her entry for March 13th, as a captive, upper lip regaining its stiffness.

"Earthquakes as usual"

You've got to love 'em.

The illustration at the top of this blog, by Lt James Rattray, is of the site where the remnants of Elphinstone's tattered army were finally destroyed in January 1842, when, later in the year, General Pollock led a brutal punitive expedition into Afghanistan...to which we will turn next, in the company of another Murray author, the Reverend George Glieg. The picture credit, from the British Library, is below.

Jugdelluk, the last stand made by General Elphinstone's army in ...
This lithograph was taken from plate 21 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James
Rattray. The Briti... ... Artist: Rattray, James (1818-1854). ...
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