John Charteris

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John Charteris
Born 1877
Died 1946 (aged 68–69)
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1909–1918
Rank Brigadier General
Battles/wars World War I
Awards Companion 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 Officer at the British Expeditionary Force's headquarters from 1915 to 1918.


Charteris was a Scot, son of a Senior Professor of Materia Medica at Glasgow University. He was fluent in French and German. He did not go to Camberley, but was the outstanding graduate of Staff College, Quetta in 1909. When Haig was appointed to Corps Command at Aldershot in 1912, the then Captain Charteris was one of the trusted officers (known as "the Hindoo Invasion") whom he brought from India with him.[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. 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!)[1]

Haig’s chaplain G.S. Duncan later commented on how his “vitality and loud-mouthed exuberance” made him unpopular. He was sometimes described as Haig's "evil counsellor". Burgess, who became his secretary late in 1916, called him “really a horror of a man” and by the end of 1917 he was known as “the U-Boat”.[1]

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. Haig kept him on after his inadequacies had been exposed.[1] His intelligence reports - particularly predictions of German manpower and morale based on interviews with prisoners and statistical analysis of their paybooks (which gave a German soldier's age and year of callup) - were crucial in strategic 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."[2]

Haig was later forced to dismiss Charteris after Charteris angered Lord Derby, then Secretary of State for War. 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.


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.[3] Philip 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.[4] 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.[5] In fact Charteris's comments later gave Adolf Hitler rhetorical ammunition to portray the British as liars.[5]

A letter from Charteris, published in his reminiscences with the date 5 September 1914, noted "the story of the Angels of Mons [is] going strong through the 2nd Corps". This may be the earliest account of the rumour. If authentic, this reference would pre-date Arthur Machen's The Bowmen—widely held to be the source of the Angels of Mons legend.[6] However, this letter was published in 1931 in compilation book At G.H.Q., and its authenticity is questionable. Examination of Charteris' original letters gives evidence that these entries and/or dates were falsified,[7] leading David Clarke, among others, to suggest that Charteris was using the Angels rumour for propaganda purposes. Charteris had not kept a diary at the time so At G.H.Q. 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.[1]

After the war he was the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire. He wrote two books on Haig: “Field Marshal Earl Haig” (1929) and "Haig" (1933).[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Reid 2006, pp156-9
  2. ^ John Charteris at First World
  3. ^ "Candid Charteris" in Time 1925
  4. ^ Knightley, Phillip (2000). The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Prion. 105
  5. ^ a b Marlin, Randal (2002). Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Broadview. pp. 73–4. 
  6. ^ Clarke, David (May 2003). "The Angel of Mons". Fortean Times. Dennis Publishing Limited. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  7. ^ Rumours of Angels: a response to Simpson, Folklore, April 2004 by David Clarke

External links[edit]

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