Adolphe Niel was born on 4 October, 1802 in Muret, in the Haute-Garonne. A bourgeois family for generations, the Niels were originally from Goyrans, in the Haute-Garonne, and not, as some have suggested, Ireland. Niel is a traditional 'Midi' name.
Niel graduated from the Ecole polytechnique in 1823 with the rank of sous-lieutenant and enrolled in the Ecole d'application du génie (engineering school) in Metz. In 1825 he was made second-lieutenant and posted with the 3rd regiment of engineers where he remained until 1829, becoming first-lieutenant and then lieutenant breveté in 1827. In 1828, he was attached to the defence works in Longwy, then, at the start of 1829, to those in Toulon. He was made second-captain on 25 January, 1829, from which date until 1831 he served in the 1st regiment of engineers. He was chef de service in Hyères, and was employed in Toulon and Bayonne in 1830 and 1831. On 1 September, 1831, he was made captain en second breveté and entered the 2nd regiment of engineers. He remained there until he was promoted again, in 1835, to first-captain, and transferred back to the 1st regiment of engineers. In 1836, he was initially employed at the fortifications depot in Paris before being attached to the Military Staff of the engineering division of the expeditionary corps which was sent to Constantine, in Algeria. The following year, he led one of the assault columns during the siege of Constantine. He was made battalion chief on 24 December, 1837 and remained in Algeria until 1839.
Between 1839 and 1840, he served with the 3rd regiment of engineers, and between 1840 and 1846, he was posted to the fortification works on Paris' north bank as fortifications director at Saint-Denis. He was promoted to Lieutenant-colonel in 1842, Colonel in May 1846 and until 1849 commanded the 2nd regiment of engineers. In 1849, he served in the expeditionary corps in the Mediterranean which had been dispatched to re-establish papal authority in Rome. He carried out the siege works on the city and following Rome's capture, was charged with delivering the news to the Pope who had taken refuge in Gaeta. On 13 July, he was made Général de brigade in the engineering corps of the expeditionary force in the Mediterranean and by 1850 he was chef du service for the engineering corps in the War Ministry. Between 1851 and 1853, he inspected the various engineering subdivisions and on 21 March, 1851, he was given a seat on the fortifications committee. He would remain there until 1859. On 30 April, 1853, he was promoted to division general and in 1854, during the first few months of the Crimean War, he commanded the expeditionary force's engineering corps in the Baltic. After a siege of five days, he presided over the capitulation of the Russian citadel of Bomarsund. Between 1855 and 1860, he was aide-de-camp to the Emperor. During the siege of Sebastopol in 1855, Napoleon III, with concerns over the duration of the operation, sent Niel to establish a report regarding the status of the army and the command of the mission. In May, he commanded the Armée d'Orient's engineering corps and directed the siege against Sebastopol. In 1857, he entered the Senate and between that year and 1860, he sat on the coastal defence commission. In 1857 and 1858, he also continued to inspect the engineering subdivisions. In December 1858, he led the discussions with Count Cavour and King Victor-Emmanuel with the aim of cementing an alliance and preparing the marriage of the Prince Napoleon and Princess Mathilde of Savoy. On 22 April, 1859, he took command of the Armée d'Italie's 4th corps, participating in the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. On 25 May, he was made Maréchal of France, and in August, he was made senior commander of the Armée de Toulouse's 6th corps. That same month, he was elected president of the Conseil Général of the Haute-Garonne. He kept his command until 1867. Alongside these functions, between 1861 and 1867, he was president of the coastal defence commission and, in 1865, commander in chief of the camp at Châlons. On 20 January, 1867, the Emperor named him Minister of War. He pursued a policy of reforms which sought to prepare the army for the changing war conditions and situations. He proposed the loi organique militaire which set out to increase the army's strength in times of war, thanks mainly to the creation of a mobile national guard, made up of young soldiers who had not been called up for active service. On 1 February, 1868, the law was finally voted on, but due to the various amendments and limitations imposed on it, it passed in severely weakened state. He died in Paris on 13 August, 1869 following an operation on his urinary tract. He did not live to see the development of his reforms.
Joseph VALYNSEELE (tr. & ed. H.D.W.)
This article is reproduced with kind permission from the Dictionnaire du Second Empire, published by Fayard.