In his new biography Napoleon the Great Andrew Roberts reports about Napoleon's stint in the Historical and Topographical Bureau of the war ministry in Paris between mid-August and early October 1795.

The Topographical Bureau was a small, highly efficient organization within the war ministry that has been described as ‘the most sophisticated planning organisation of its day’. Set up by Carnot and reporting directly to the Committee [of Public Safety], it took information from the commanders-in-chief, plotted troop movements, prepared detailed operational directives and co-ordinated logistics [...]

The Bureau didn’t decide overall grand strategy; that was done by the politicians on the Committee of Public Safety, which was highly vulnerable to factional struggles [...]

The Topographical Bureau’s curious office hours – from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. – allowed Napoleon plenty of time to write a romantic novella entitled Clisson et Eugénie, a swansong for his unrequited love affair with [Eugénie Désirée Clary].

My question is this: do we know whether the bureau's indeed curious office hours were a coincidental oddity (perhaps a quirk of its then leader General Henri Clarke) or due to logistics around when new information became available in the capital of a major colonial power and when new military advice had to be dispatched.

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    Interestingly, prior to widespread artificial lighting, biphasic sleeping during Winter (awake at night) and Summar (sleep at noon) wasn't uncommon. Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 6:53
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    The late night/early morning hours make sense from a military support sense. Those hours would enable the office to compile the latest information and get it to the officers/units in time for morning revile.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 4:32
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    The Bureau had not a military support function. It's title was Cabinet historique et topographique militaire. It had to collect and review information in order to produce a journal, a table, dictionaries, etc. I've got to the decrees organizing the bureau in a very detailed way, but I'm still looking for the source of the Roberts extract. Also, Napoleon was a very short time in the bureau. I'm very suspicious of the accuracy of the information. Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 14:36
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    @Drux Very general support, without a time factor. That's typical of Carnot, a very exceptional individual and strategic. As for Roberts, I'm reading his texts. Not an historian. And when you say Roberts agrees.... Known facts are facts. Roberts has a good narrative but only on secondary sources. No need to agree. I like the sources first. Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 22:59
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    One question: such work hours were that of Napoleon at the office, or were of the office as a whole? Maybe the office did work 24/7 and Napoleon was in the 1pm-5pm/11pm-3am shift? The wording would suggest that no, but if they were a vital service to have those odd hours, and France being in war, would have justified making the service ininterrupted.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 7:09

3 Answers 3


The Cabinet Historique et topographique militaire was created by a decree the 28th August 1794. The decree goes in detail about the work and the organization to the point of naming who does what. A second decree (16/06/1795) has also elements of organization. The decrees don't mention office hours.

The work done by the bureau in support of the armies was important but not time critical in a way that would need special hours.

Even though the idea of office hours is somewhat anachronistic, the hours mentioned by Andrews would be odd. Nevertheless, there's no source for these hours.

I would think then the Bureau had not odd hours (the other would be that its hours wouldn't be odd at the time, but as far as I know, they would be) and there's no source supporting such thesis. Also, the idea that a 8 hours day would leave a lot a free time is somewhat strange. It's not a big day but not a small one either.

If someone can provide a source I'll happilly revise my opinion.

As for Andrews:

I couldn't consult Napoleon the Great. But the text it's the same in his Napoleon: A Life [the same book with UK title]. Andrews has only two references for the passage that don't justify the points of fact (even less the reasoning). A primary source, i.e. a quote from a letter that Napoleon wrote to his brother. A secondary source, p. 128 of a book from historian Howard Brown.

Andrews use of Napoleon's letter is strange: "three days later [20/08/1795] he was crowing to Joseph: ‘I am at this moment attached to the Topographical Department of the Committee of Public Safety for the direction of armies.'"

The full letter is available in translation. It starts "I am attached for the present to the topograpical board of the Comittee of Public Safety for the direction of the armies; I replace Carnot."

It then goes on for a full page on completely unrelated matters. I don't see any crowing. Self-agrandizement (to replace Carnot?)? well it's Napoléon...

As to the analysis of the Bureau functions it seems to be based on a page of Brown. I couldn't check this book but I would be surprised that it would bring something new to this answer (a part giving some credibility to Andrews ideas about the Bureau). The assertion about the hours goes without reference and its not clear that its source is Brown (there's another unrelated reference before the assertion).


For the decrees:

Bonnal de Ganges, Edmond. Les Représentants du peuple en mission près les armées, 1791-1797, d’après le dépôt de la guerre, les séances de la Convention, les archives nationales, par Bonnal de Ganges,... Tome IV. Les représentants et les armées dans la politique. Paris: A. Savaète, 1899. pp. 443-451 Available from archive.org

Translation of Napoleon's letter [I've checked with the french, the English is a bit antiquated but ok]:

Napoleon. The Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with His Brother Joseph. Vol I. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1856. pp.271-2 Available from archive.org

Other references: Brown, Howard G. War, revolution, and the bureaucratic state: politics and army administration in France, 1791-1799. Oxford historical monographs. Oxford : New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1995.

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Penguin Publishing Group, 2014.

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon the Great. London ; New York: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2014.

  • Can you point to a decree for the creation of a similar bureaucratic institution that mentions office hours? I doubt this this kind of detail usually goes into those kind of documents.
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 11:53
  • I had to read a lot of French Revolutionary legislation during my studies and this is the first time that I've seen such detail. I've never seen hours mentioned, but again office hours it's a bit anachronistic. That would be a good other question: origins of office hours... Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 12:02
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    No problem. But it's not for me to disprove. It would be for Andrews to prove. It's very hard to prove an absence of proof. In the absence of proof there's nothing to argue, nothing to settle. I think that I proved that Andrews assertion is groundless. This is a typical problem in history (and other) discussions. Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 12:10
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    On the difficulty of proving an absence of proof: I've checked Clarke's biography, Carnot's biography, several biographies of Napoléon, made full search of european portal of archives, of the digital repository of the French national library, of all legislation and found nothing.... I didn't include that in my answer because I could go on and never defeat the idea that maybe somewhere there's a source that proves an assertion that was ungrounded from the start. A bit pointless (even though I enjoy the search for a while :) Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 12:19

A modern IT department typically requires its junior members to perform more on-call off-hour shifts than senior members, because the senior members need the face time with other departments that work regular shifts.

Although the work performed by the Topographical office may not have been time critical, the time of arriving couriers most certainly would have been - most would be expected to depart again the next morning for their headquarters, with dispatches or orders of some sort. Having the office open through the night, manned by a junior officer, was the only way to provide an "on-call" service in an age before telephones, pagers, and cell phones.

It seems likely that Carnot arranged for junior officers to work half-time on and half-time off, enabling couriers to deliver their dispatches promptly on arrival in Paris, and for those junior officers manning the off-hour shifts to still learn the trade.

  • What's the evidence? There's no "on-call" capability in the decrees organising the bureau. It was a historical and topographical bureau. It did not give orders. But there's another possibility: a confusion with the hours of the committee of public safety that worked around the clock and did give orders. I'm not going to look further but that could explain the ungrounded assertion. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 11:28

Topographic bureaus often used to work late at night. There are two reasons for this. One is that they needed to make nighttime observations of the weather and stars. The other is that military attacks and movements often occur at dawn. The bureau is needed to make plans for any movements so it is made to operate at a convenient time for that purpose.

  • That (also) makes intuitive sense. Do you have further concrete evidence (e.g. of other topographic bureaus which worked at night)?
    – Drux
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 3:11
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    The first point makes some sense [but citation needed]; the second one does not; unless the enemy was at the gates of Paris it would take a considerable time for a corrier in horseback to provide the maps to the armies (so arriving "at dawn" depended of a lot of factors, like distances, light -a horseman during the day should be expected to be faster-, and other random issues).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 7:09
  • @SJuan76 indeed. The bureau worked with all the war theatres, precisely defined in the decrees, all far way from Paris. Again, the bureau had not a time critical role. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 11:30

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