A Woman Unafraid of War–Florentia Sale

Throughout history, women have seldom started wars, but it is surprising how many women have played important roles when wars come to them. Florentia Sale, for example, was a Victorian-era woman whose journal helped the British to navigate a tricky situation in Afghanistan in 1842. After that war ended, the journal became a bestselling book and it remains today an enduring record of a brave and clever woman.

Lady Florentia Sale

Florentia Sale was born in Madras, India, in 1790. into a family of British civil servants.  Like many British civil servant and army families of the time, her father  and his family spent very little time in England. At the age of 19, Florentia married a British army officer, Sir Robert Sale. Most of the rest of her life was spent in farthest reaches of the British empire. All of her ten children were born abroad and spent most of their lives outside of England. Florentia was already a grandmother when her life was changed by one of England’s most unnecessary wars—the first Anglo-Afghan War.

The British entered the Afghan War because they were afraid Russia might be planning to invade India through Afghanistan, although the Russians had no such plan. Both British and Russian leaders apparently misunderstood which ruler the Afghan people would accept, or perhaps they didn’t care, but each country pushed support for its own choice. The British Army and the British East India Company, which fought beside them, invaded Afghanistan. As usual, the armed forces were accompanied by many women and children. When the British moved into Kabul, the citizens rose against them. On November 2, 1842, Lady Sale describes in her journal “This morning early, all was in commotion in Kabul. The shops were plundered and the people all fighting.” The British decided to retreat. 

A large number of hostages, most of them women or children, were taken by the Afghans to ensure that the British would leave. Lady Sale was one of them. This group was to be marched to Kandahar. The march was long and slow and it started during a cold Afghan winter. Conditions were not comfortable, but Florentia made the best of them. The group walked for several days with only a few stops and no access to the clothes and supplies they had packed for themselves. When they finally were reunited with their belongings, Florentia describes how good it felt. “We luxuriated in dressing, although we had no clothes but those on our backs; but we enjoyed washing our faces very much, having had but one opportunity of doing so since we left Cabul. It was rather a painful process, as the cold and glare of the sun on the snow had three times peeled my face, from which the skin came off in strips.

Wars moved slowly in those days and various envoys from the British came and went from the Afghan camp, although they could do nothing to free the hostages. But Lady Sale was able to send letters including pages of her journal to her husband, to let him know where the hostages were and how they were being treated. Parts of her journal were published in London newspapers so even as she was living through the hostage crisis, she became famous. Dubbed the ‘soldier’s wife par excellence’ by The Times, Lady Sale was also known as ‘the Grenadier in Petticoats’ by her husband’s fellow officers.

Throughout her long ordeal, Lady Sale stood up for her rights and for the well-being of her fellow hostages. When the Afghans and the British forces were negotiating the terms of ransom for the hostage women and children, Lady Sale protested “against being implicated in any proceedings in which I have no vote.”

Cold weather was not the only difficulty the women had to overcome. Many of the younger women were wives of British officers and during their nine-month-long ordeal, four babies were born to add to the list of hostages. None of this seemed to bother the indominable women who coped with weather, childbirth and earthquakes without losing hope.

Even as she observed the war and bargained with soldiers, Florentia continued to pay attention to the beauty of the countryside. In April she wrote “I saw plenty of amaryllis in bloom; as also of the Persian iris (the orris of the druggists), which quite scented the air with a perfume resembling that of mingled violets and wall-flowers.”

After nine long months, the hostages were released. Nothing had been gained by the war. In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir about this disastrous war. He wrote that it was “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.

If you would like to read more, you can find Florentia’s journal on Amazon and in some libraries. Sale, Florentia. Lady Sale’s Afghanistan: an Indomitable Victorian Lady’s Account of the Retreat from Kabul During the First Afghan War.