John Charteris

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John Charteris
Born(1877-01-08)8 January 1877
Died4 February 1946(1946-02-04) (aged 69)
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1893–1922
RankBrigadier General
Battles/warsWorld War I
AwardsCompanion of the Order of St Michael and St George
Distinguished Service Order

Brigadier General John Charteris CMG, DSO (1877–1946) was a British general during the First World War. He was Sir Douglas Haig's Chief of Intelligence at the British Expeditionary Force GHQ from 1915 to 1918.

He was later a Unionist Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Dumfriesshire.

Early career[edit]

Charteris was a Scotsman, born on 8 January 1877, probably in Glasgow, son of Matthew Charteris (1840–97), Regius Professor of Materia Medica at the University of Glasgow. He was from a distinguished academic family. His uncle was Archibald Hamilton Charteris (1835-1908), Professor of Liberal Criticism at the University of Edinburgh and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1892). His older brother, also called Archibald Hamilton Charteris (1874-1940), was Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney, whilst another brother, Francis James Charteris, was Professor of Materia Medica at the University of St Andrews.[1]

He attended Kelvinside Academy 1886-91, then spent a year studying maths and physics at Göttingen University.[1] He was fluent in French and German.[2] He entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in December 1893. He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in March 1896 and sent to India.[1] He did not go to Staff College, Camberley,[2] but instead entered Staff College, Quetta in 1907 and was the outstanding graduate of his year in 1909. Douglas Haig, then Chief of Staff India, and also a Freemason and a Presbyterian, became his patron. Haig’s wife disliked Charteris.[1]

Charteris was a staff captain at India HQ 1909-10, then 1910-12 was GSO2 on the Operations Section of the Indian General Staff.[1] When Haig was appointed to Corps Command at Aldershot in 1912, as Assistant Military Secretary Captain Charteris was one of the trusted officers of the “Hindoo Gang” (or "Hindoo Invasion") who accompanied him.[1][2]

He married Noel Hodgson in October 1913. They had three sons, all of whom became army officers. One of them, Euan, was killed in Tunisia on 3 December 1942 whilst serving with the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment.[1]

Western Front[edit]

In August 1914, still a captain, he was appointed an aide de camp to Douglas Haig. In September 1914 Haig had him set up an intelligence operation for I Corps. Despite being fluent in French and German he had no formal training in intelligence. He accompanied Haig when he was promoted to command First Army in December 1914 and then to GHQ when Haig was appointed Commander-in-Chief in December 1915. He was promoted to Brigadier-General at the age of 38.[1] He was awarded the DSO in 1915.[1]

He was brash, untidy, and liked to start the day with a brandy and soda. He was a sort of licensed jester (known as "The Principal Boy" due to his rapid promotion) amidst Haig’s staid inner circle. In Walter Reid's view he comes across as likeable and able in his own writings, including his letters to his much younger wife Noel (the “Douglas” frequently referred to in his letters is their infant son!).[2]

Haig’s chaplain George S. Duncan later commented on how his “vitality and loud-mouthed exuberance” made him unpopular; Burgess, who became his secretary late in 1916, called him “really a horror of a man”.[2] Lord Derby, then Secretary of State for War, began to have doubts about him after an incident in February 1917 when he failed to censor an interview given by Haig to French journalists.[1]

Charteris was sometimes described as Haig's "evil counsellor." He was not trained in military intelligence, and is sometimes blamed for Haig's errors as he may well have told Haig what he wanted to hear.[2] He produced reports of poor German morale based on interviews with prisoners and of German manpower shortages based on statistical analysis of their paybooks, which gave a German soldier's age and year of callup. These reports were crucial in Haig's decisions and were increasingly criticised by Major-General Macdonogh, intelligence advisor at the War Office, and by politicians and, after Cambrai, the press. "During the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) and at Cambrai, Charteris was certainly guilty of being overly optimistic with regard to the Allies' chances of success at both set-piece battles."[3] Haig kept him on after his inadequacies had been exposed.[2]

However, Bourne points out that he was methodical and hardworking despite a duodenal ulcer and a propensity to chest infections. Herbert Lawrence, who became BEF Chief of Intelligence briefly in early 1918, testified to the efficiency of the organisation he inherited.[1] Bourne argues that although Charteris was wrong about the wider issues of German morale and manpower, he was effective at predicting enemy troop deployments, immediate plans and tactical changes. In Bourne’s view, he was not Haig’s “evil genius”, but rather shared Haig’s innate optimism and did nothing to undermine it.[1]

The official inquiry blamed intelligence failures for the near debacle at Cambrai, where a German counterattack had retaken almost all the British gains.[1] By the end of 1917 Charteris was known as “the U-Boat”.[2] In January 1918 Brigadier-General Edgar William Cox was recalled to France to replace Charteris. Charteris' final intelligence reports correctly predicted a German offensive in Spring 1918. Charteris was moved to the job of Deputy Director of Transportation at GHQ.[1]


He has also been associated with some notable allied propaganda and disinformation successes such as "the master hoax" of World War I, the story of the German corpse factory Kadaververwertungsanstalt, in which the Germans supposedly rendered their own dead soldiers into fats. This story had circulated in several British and international newspapers in 1917. After the war Charteris allegedly claimed in a public speech that he invented the story when he deliberately switched captions on two German war pictures: one image showed soldiers killed in battle being taken away for burial, while the other showed horse carcasses being delivered to a processing factory behind German lines. One of his subordinates created a fake diary describing the use of the factory. This was to have been planted on the corpse of German soldier, to be "found" as proof of the story, but this plan was eventually dropped.

Charteris's comments caused a media outcry.[4] Phillip Knightley says that all the evidence suggests that the story originated in newspaper reports about a real factory for rendering animal corpses. Charteris may have concocted the claim that he invented it in order to impress his audience, not realizing a reporter was present.[5] Randal Marlin says that Charteris's claim to have invented the story is "demonstrably false" in a number of details. However, it is possible that a fake diary was created but never used. Nevertheless, this fake diary, which Charteris claimed to still exist, has never been found. It is also possible that Charteris created a miscaptioned photograph to be sent to the Chinese, but again there is no evidence of this.[6] In fact Charteris's comments later gave Adolf Hitler rhetorical ammunition to portray the British as liars.[6]

Postwar and writings[edit]

He was awarded the CMG in 1919.[1] He served as Director of Movements and Quartering in India from 1920[7] to 1921,[8] then as Deputy Adjutant- and Quartermaster-General of Eastern Command from 1921[9] to 1922.[10] He left the Army in 1922. From 1924 until 1929 he was Unionist Party MP for Dumfriesshire. He was interested in animals, agriculture and the affairs of war veterans and their families.[1]

Charteris wrote “Field Marshal Earl Haig” (1929), “At GHQ” (1931) and “Haig” (1933). His writings were considered controversial.[1] He had not kept a diary at the time so "At GHQ" consisted of papers, notes and letters from the time rewritten into diary form. He confessed to sometimes amplifying from memory but by and large the reconstructed “diary” is consistent with records which he kept at the time, e.g. his entry for the First Day of the Somme which he states was “not an attempt to win the war at a blow” and “weeks of hard fighting” lay ahead.[2]

"At GHQ" also contains a letter from Charteris with the date 5 September 1914, noting that "the story of the Angels of Mons [is] going strong through the 2nd Corps". If authentic, this may be the earliest account of the rumour, predating Arthur Machen's The Bowmen—widely held to be the source of the Angels of Mons legend.[11] However, examination of Charteris' original letters gives evidence that these entries and/or dates were falsified,[12] leading David Clarke, among others, to suggest that Charteris was using the Angels rumour for propaganda purposes.[2]


Charteris died on 4 February 1946 at his residence, 'Bourne House', in the village of Thorpe, in the county of Surrey.[13] His body was buried in the graveyard of Tinwald Kirk (Church), in Dumfries and Galloway, which also displays a memorial stained glass window to his memory.[14]

His will was valued for probate at £6,895 4s 11d (around £250,000 at 2016 prices).[15][1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Matthew 2004, pp213-4
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Reid 2006, pp156-9
  3. ^ John Charteris at First World
  4. ^ "Candid Charteris" in Time 1925
  5. ^ Knightley, Phillip (2000). The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Prion. 105
  6. ^ a b Marlin, Randal (2002). Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Broadview. pp. 73–4.
  7. ^ "No. 32162". The London Gazette. 14 December 1920. p. 12302.
  8. ^ "No. 32437". The London Gazette. 26 August 1921. p. 6775.
  9. ^ "No. 32437". The London Gazette. 26 August 1921. p. 6774.
  10. ^ "No. 32806". The London Gazette. 16 March 1923. p. 2079.
  11. ^ Clarke, David (May 2003). "The Angel of Mons". Fortean Times. Dennis Publishing Limited. Archived from the original on 16 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-13.
  12. ^ Rumours of Angels: a response to Simpson, Folklore, April 2004 by David Clarke Archived 10 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Entry for Charteris in the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography'.
  14. ^ Entry for the stained glass windows dedicated to the Charteris's at Tinwald Church, Scottish Military Research Group website, published online 9 January 2007.
  15. ^ "Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound". Archived from the original on 31 March 2016. Retrieved 18 March 2017.


External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Allan Chapple
Member of Parliament for Dumfriesshire
Succeeded by
Dr Joseph Hunter