The last king of France was not even a king at the time of his execution. He had been arrested the previous August and stripped of all his titles and styles when the monarchy was abolished a month later – his name at the time of his death, according to the newly formed French republic, was Citoyen Louis Capet. Louis faced his beheading bravely, and spoke to the onlookers, forgiving those who called for his execution.
The tragedy of it all is that Louis had been one of the greatest reformers in the history of the French monarchy, and had repeatedly instituted (or attempted to institute) policies that would help the common people of France. However, his reforms were repeatedly blocked by a nobility jealous of its privileges – especially those reforms that would have harmed them financially. The reforms they did allow through often proved economically disastrous – Louis and his advisers were poor economists. As king, the ultimate responsibility rested with Louis, and as a man, he paid the ultimate price for it.
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
The fall of Dien Bien Phu marked the unofficial end of French Indo-China. The French Far East Expeditionary Corps was comprehensively defeated by the Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries – the first time that a colonial occupier had been so defeated. The causes of the defeat are many, but the two most prominent are the evolution of the Viet Minh from a loose group of disorganised guerilla bands into a force equivalent to standing national army, and a series of poor decisions made by the French defenders.
The Vietnamese victory came only after 55 days of battle, with large losses on both sides: as many as 2000 French dead and over 4000 Vietnamese. The fighting was close and deadly, often resembling the trench warfare of World War One as the siege progressed. In the final victory, almost 12,000 French prisoners were taken, and many died in captivity from wounds received in the fighting, or as a result of beatings, disease and starvation while imprisoned.
The official end of the first Indo-China War came later that year, although it would cast a long shadow, inspiring other rebellions in the French colonies of Madagascar and Algeria, two separate coups d’état in France itself, and of course, the Second Indo-China War – better known today as the Vietnam War.