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Charteris, Johnfree

(1877–1946)
  • J. M. Bourne

John Charteris (1877–1946)

by Lafayette, 1926?

Charteris, John (1877–1946), army officer, was born on 8 January 1877 at 8 Blythswood Square, Glasgow, the son of Matthew Charteris (1840–1897), senior professor of materia medica at Glasgow University, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Greer). His was a distinguished academic family. His uncle, Archibald Hamilton Charteris (1835–1908), was professor of biblical criticism at Edinburgh University and moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland (1892); his elder brother, also Archibald Hamilton Charteris (1874–1940), Challis professor of international law at Sydney University; and another brother, Francis James Charteris (1875–1964), professor of materia medica at St Andrews.

John Charteris was educated at Kelvinside Academy (1886–91) and, following a year studying mathematics and physics at Göttingen, entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in December 1893. He was commissioned in the Royal Engineers in March 1896 and posted to India. His career did not take its characteristic shape until 1907, when he entered the staff college at Quetta, from which he emerged in 1909 with a reputation as the outstanding graduate of his year. His elevation to staff officer also brought him into contact with the man who was to dominate his professional life, Douglas Haig, then chief of staff to the commander-in-chief, India. Haig had a liking for young officers with quick wit and lively conversation, provided that they were dedicated, competent, and loyal. Charteris scored on all points. He had the added advantages of being also, like Haig, a Scot, a staunch Presbyterian, and a freemason. Though Haig's wife disliked Charteris's personal habits, his career flourished under Haig's patronage. He was promoted from staff captain, headquarters, India (1909–10), to general staff officer second grade, operations section, general staff, India (1910–12). In 1912 Haig became general officer commanding-in-chief, Aldershot. Charteris was one of the unpopular ‘Hindu gang’ who followed Haig from India to act as his personal staff, in Charteris's case as assistant military secretary. On the outbreak of war Charteris followed Haig to France as his aide-de-camp. His connection with intelligence began in September 1914 when Haig asked him to establish an intelligence operation in 1st corps. Charteris had no training as an intelligence officer, but he spoke fluent German and French. From that moment intelligence dominated Charteris's career. He followed Haig to First Army in December 1914 and to general headquarters when Haig became commander-in-chief in December 1915, and was promoted brigadier-general at the age of thirty-eight. This was a rapid ascent for a man who was a mere captain when the war began. Until his replacement in January 1918 Charteris was Haig's major source of battlefield intelligence.

Charteris was in many respects an outstanding intelligence officer. He was methodical and hardworking despite poor health, which included a duodenal ulcer and a propensity to serious chest infections. His successor, Sir Herbert Lawrence, testified to the quality and efficiency of the organization he inherited. Charteris was generally successful in providing quick and accurate information about German troop deployments, tactical changes, and immediate intentions. He was less successful and less equipped, however, to provide Haig with accurate assessments of wider questions of German morale and manpower, where his predictions were at odds with the more pessimistic and cautious deductions of the War Office's intelligence chief, Sir George Macdonogh, a Roman Catholic, with whom Charteris had an unedifying feud.

A legend has grown up around Charteris's relationship with Haig. Charteris has been portrayed as Haig's ‘evil counsellor’, deliberately feeding him optimistic assessments of the state of German morale and manpower, encouraging the ‘disastrous grandiosity’ of Haig's strategy, especially during the autumn of 1917. There is clearly no substance to the charge that Charteris deliberately misled Haig. His contemporary papers show that he shared Haig's optimism about the war and its effects on German morale. Haig's strategy had more profound sources than the influence of Charteris, though there is no doubt that Charteris did nothing to undermine Haig's view of the war and something to sustain it.

Charteris was removed from intelligence work in January 1918. The secretary of state for war, the earl of Derby, harboured misgivings about him following his failure in February 1917 to censor an interview given by Haig to French journalists. These were deepened by the reverses at Cambrai in November 1917, which an official inquiry blamed, in part, on intelligence failures. Charteris ended the war as deputy director of transportation in France. He was awarded the DSO in 1915 and CMG in 1919, and several foreign honours.

Charteris retired from the army in 1922. From 1924 to 1929 he was Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire. His parliamentary career was marked by a humane interest in agriculture, and in the welfare of animals and of war veterans and their families. During the 1930s he turned to writing, publishing two admiring biographies of ‘the chief’, Field-Marshal Earl Haig (1929) and Haig (1933), and a controversial account of his conduct of intelligence operations, At GHQ (1931).

Charteris married Noel Emily Beatrice Hodgson, daughter of C. D. Hodgson of The Hallams, Shamley Green, Guildford, Surrey, in October 1913. Theirs was a close and happy union. They had three sons: (John) Douglas (b. 1914), Nigel Charles Godwen-Austen (b. 1916), and Euan Basil Cyril (b. 1921). All three were commissioned into the army. Lieutenant Euan Charteris was killed in action in Tunisia on 3 December 1942 while serving with the 2nd battalion Parachute regiment. Brigadier-General John Charteris was awarded the DSO in 1915 and made CMG in 1919. Charteris died at his home, Bourne House, Thorpe, Surrey, on 4 February 1946, survived by his wife. He was buried at Tinwald in Dumfriesshire on 9 March.

Sources

  • King's Lond., Charteris MSS
  • J. Charteris, At GHQ (1931)
  • M. Occleshaw, Armour against fate: British military intelligence in the First World War (1989)
  • [J. R. E. Charles], ‘Brig.-Gen. John Charteris’, Royal Engineers Journal, new ser., 60 (1946), 151–2
  • J. Charteris, Field-Marshal Earl Haig (1929)
  • J. Marshall-Cornwall, Haig as military commander (1973)
  • J. Marshall-Cornwall, Wars and rumours of wars: a memoir (1984)
  • J. Terraine, Douglas Haig: the educated soldier (1963)
  • J. Terraine, The road to Passchendaele, the Flanders offensive of 1917: a study in inevitability (1977)
  • J. G. Starke, ‘Charteris, Archibald Hamilton’, AusDB, vol. 7
  • The Times (1946)
  • Army List
  • b. cert.

Archives

  • King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62159

Likenesses

  • Lafayette, photograph, 3 March 1917, repro. in Charteris, At GHQ
  • Lafayette, photograph, 1926, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, King's Lond., Liddell Hart C.

Wealth at Death

£6895 4s. 11d.: probate, 27 May 1946, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

D. Pike & others, eds., , 16 vols. (1966–2002)
King's College, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, London
M. Stenton & S. Lees, eds., , 4 vols. (1976–81)
, 5th ser. (1909–)
(1920–)