Napoleon had grand dreams of empire when he embarked for the Middle East in 1798. And at first, they seemed warranted. His forces took Malta in June 1798, and then eluded the British Navy for nearly two weeks as they crossed the Mediterranean to Egypt. On July 1, the fleet landed at Alexandria, although Napoleon himself was still at sea.
Perhaps this is why his orders were ignored, and his forces invaded the city during the night, taking it with little resistance. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was a mixed success: on land his forces triumphed over the Egyptians and ended the rule of the Mamelukes; at sea, they lost a disastrous engagement with the British. Undaunted, Napoleon continued with his plans to invade Syria, but a combination of harrying from the British at sea and the Ottomans on land, coupled with uprisings of the conquered (notably at Cairo in October 1798) eventually forced him to withdraw. The lasting results of his invasion were few: Egypt remained an Ottoman possession, although the decline of the Ottoman Empire was now undeniable; and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone led to great advances in archaeology, making it possible to translate hieroglyphics into modern languages.
It is possibly the most notorious defeat in military history, a textbook example of strategic and logistical errors: Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, in the chilly Winter in 1812. This day, December 14, marks the date upon which the French were finally expelled from Russian territory.
A combination of factors – worsening weather, an over-extended supply chain, the scorched-earth policy of the Russian peasantry and the guerilla tactics of the Russian military being the most well-known – came together to make the French position in Moscow untenable. When Napoleon left the army to shore up his political position in France, the already poor morale of the French army sank lower still, and the remaining commanders ordered a retreat, most likely in order to prevent a mutiny.
Thus began one of the most infamous and fatal retreats the world has ever seen. In addition, the defeat was the beginning of the end for Napoleon, whose fortunes declined over the next few years, finally culminating in his defeat in the battle of Waterloo in 1815
Although Napoleon’s forces had originally met with considerable success in this war, conquering and subjugating several provinces, it was on this day that the Peninsular War started to go badly for Napoleon, at least symbolically.
The tiny province of Asturias, located on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, declared war on Napoleon and cast out its French governor. Within weeks, it had been joined by every other Spanish province. By August, French forces withdrew by Portugal, by October, they controlled only the two northernmost provinces of Spain, those closest to France. But here the tide turned once more, as Napoleon had fresh armies to draw upon and the Spanish none.