Sir John Charteris (1877 – 1946)
The idea to create a London section of the Kelvinside Academical Club was taken at a meeting in London towards the end of 1920. It was attended among others by Fergus Morton and Malcolm McCaul Watson, who became the first Secretary. The first annual dinner was held in 1921 in the Caledonian Club, a tradition that continues to this day. William Brodie the Chairman of the School addressed the gathering mentioning the War Memorial Trust that had recently been set up to honour those who had made the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War.
A gavel was presented to the section and since then the names of the presidents have been engraved on it. In addition to being the first secretary Watson was also the first president holding office between 1922 and 1924. Fergus Morton was another early president of the section. Needless to say he and several of the other early presidents served during World War 1. As we remember the centenary of this conflict which was supposed to be the war to end all wars it may be appropriate to mention the president of the London Section in 1933, John Charteris.
John was born in 1877, the youngest son of Matthew Charteris, a professor at the university. He followed his two older brothers, Archibald and Francis to KA where he spent 5 years between 1886 and 1891. Two years younger than Francis, his nickname at school according to Colin MacKay’s Centenary history of Kelvinside Academy was “Remus”. Needless to say Francis was known as “Romulus”. After leaving KA he spent a year studying mathematics and physics at Gottingen University in Germany. Unlike the majority of those who served during World War 1 Charteris was a career soldier having entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1893 at the age of 16. At that time officers entering either the artillery or engineers were trained there while Sandhurst, at that time, was the training centre for those entering either the infantry or cavalry.
Commissioned in the Royal Engineers in 1896 and posted to India his career progressed gradually until 1907 when he entered the staff college at Quetta. He left in 1909 as the outstanding graduate of his year. Reaching staff officer rank at Quetta he soon came into contact with the man who would influence his professional life for several years to come. Douglas Haig was then the chief of staff to the commander in chief, India, Sir O’Moore Creagh. Haig had a liking for young officers who were dedicated, loyal and competent. Charteris met these criteria and also had further advantages. Like Haig he was Scottish, a Presbyterian and a freemason. Needless to say when Haig returned to Aldershot in 1912 Captain Charteris was one of the trusted officers, part of the “Hindoo Invasion”, that he brought with him.
Back in the UK Charteris became Haig’s assistant military secretary and advisor on intelligence and other matters, his career developing greatly. However, he was not popular with other officers. Apparently he could be rude and untidy and was rumoured to have started his day with a brandy and soda. He was also regarded as “the principal boy” due to his rapid promotions. Haig’s wife described him as “dirty and vulgar”. However, Haig thought otherwise and when the Great War started he was posted to the Western Front as aide-de-camp to Haig who asked him to specialise in military intelligence. Charteris was fluent in both French and German – the result of his KA education perhaps or his year spent in Germany?
Promotion came very quickly and by the end of 1915 he was a brigadier-general at the age of thirty eight. Not bad for a man who was a captain when war broke out. He was, by all accounts an outstanding intelligence officer. Despite poor health due to a duodenal ulcer, he was very hardworking. He provided his superiors with accurate information about German activities such as troop movements and tactical changes. On the other hand he had less success with providing Haig with information about German morale but when it came to propaganda he would come into his element.
Not long after the outbreak of the war the Angel of Mons legend was spreading. The story was that as the BEF was retreating after the Battle of Mons in August 1914, the first time both armies had faced each other, several soldiers had seen visions in the skies above them. Angels wielding swords faced the Germans thus allowing the British to make good their escape. The legend then said that archers fired arrows towards the Germans. This supposedly took place on 26th August which also happened to be the anniversary of the Battle of Crecy where the English longbow men had won the day.
The BEF was heavily outnumbered on a scale of 4 to 1 at the start of the battle. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Germans thanks to the expertise of the British infantry armed with their Lee Enfield rifles. Some soldiers were capable of firing 15 rounds a minute at a range of 200 yards. Such accuracy made the Germans think that they were facing machine gun units. The BEF was pushed back over a period of two days not before they had suffered losses in the region of 1600. German losses, on the other hand, were around 5000.
This first battle was a big news story back home and as a result the recruiting stations were inundated with applicants all set to fight. Patriotism was at a high and newspapers and other publications were eager for news of victories. A London newspaper, the Evening News engaged a Welsh author named Arthur Machen to publish such a tale of derring do. Machen was a writer of Gothic horror stories and he called this tale The Bowmen. In his story the British soldiers at the Battle of Mons appealed to St George for heavenly aid and who should appear but ghostly medieval longbow men from the Battle of Agincourt some 500 years previously. These bowmen destroyed the advancing Germans allowing the British forces to make good their escape.
It must be remembered that Machen’s story was a work of fiction, nevertheless, many newspaper editors begged for more information. To his credit Machen did remind everyone that it was purely fiction, however, many readers accepted it as an actual news report. The story was published on 29th September 1914, some five weeks after the battle. Did John Charteris have anything to do with this story? He was a compulsive letter writer, sometimes writing several times a day to his wife. These letters were edited and published as a book titled At GHQ in 1931. The book includes a letter to his wife dated 5th September 1914, almost two weeks after the battle and some three weeks before publication of The Bowmen. He wrote “… the story of the Angel of Mons going strong through the 2nd Corps of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and all clad in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress.”
As Charteris was a respected senior officer and his letter was ostensibly dated before publication of Machen’s story it seems as if intervention of a supernatural form was being discussed at a high level. However, no other contemporary writings can be found to support Charteris’ comments. A further letter of 11th February 1915 to his wife mentions the Angel once more.
The Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives holds microfilm copies of the original letters which formed the basis for his book At GHQ. A social historian, David Clarke, found that there are no letters bearing these dates in the archive. The original letters were donated to the Intelligence Corps Museum on his death, but the letters are not there either. The letters could well have been lost, but it is also feasible that they never existed and the entries published in the book falsified. But why?
In first months of the war the population obtained news from the front through personal contact with the combatants or through the media. Media reports were often out of date and were subject to strict censorship. Reporters were not allowed near the front line and tended to rely on information provided by the army. Rumours spread as people repeated the most unlikely stories as fact.
As Chief of Army Intelligence from 1915-1918 Charteris was involved with several schemes to disseminate propaganda. The Angel of Mons would appear to have been a case in point. In times of war both the combatants and those at home waiting for news want to hear good news. They do not want to listen or read about negativity. A story such as that of the Angel boosts morale so little effort appears to have been made to play it down. It is now regarded as a piece of propaganda put forward by the British.
At the time the BEF was in retreat from Mons another rumour was prevalent in Britain. Thousands of Russian soldiers “with snow on their boots” had been seen travelling by rail through England on their way to the Channel ports. Reports said that they were reinforcements for the Allied troops serving on the Western Front. However, how could Russian troops still possibly have snow on their boots whilst in England during the height of summer? The logical fact did not quell the rumour. Despite this a German spy passed this information onto his High Command. It was subsequently claimed that this was part of the reason why the Germans moved two divisions to the Belgian coast in 1914.
The Allied cause clearly benefitted from such rumours, it was not too difficult for high ranking military personnel to provide information to reporters “off the record”. As Haig’s intelligence officer Charteris would have been aware that such acts could prove useful in aiding morale to those on the front and at home but also having the opposite effect on the Germans.
There is no reason to believe that Charteris was involved in spreading the rumours about the Russian troops, but he was directly involved in the spread of pieces of propaganda. In 1915 he heard the story of a soldier being crucified by German soldiers. A sergeant had observed Germans sitting round a fire near which seemed to him to be a crucified man. However, as he got closer he saw that his eyes were being deceived by shadows. However, when his report filtered its way back to intelligence this salient point had been omitted and the story of the tortured soldier ended up being printed in The Times of 10th May 1915. This report stated that it was a Canadian officer who had been tortured in this manner. A few days later another report in the newspaper said that it had been a Canadian sergeant rather than an officer. Such reports would incense those at home and make them think that the enemy was barbaric in their treatment of Allied troops. Such reports would no doubt help the Allied cause by encouraging more men to sign up for service. Conscription did not start until January 1916, until then all those who signed up were volunteers.
However, was the story of the crucified Canadian propaganda or fact? Naturally there was public outrage at this story and the subject was raised in parliament. Enquiries would be made by the War Office. It was noted by some Canadians that they had left about 40 wounded men behind in a barn as they were temporarily driven back. When they recaptured the position they found that the Germans had bayoneted all of their comrades with the exception of a sergeant. The Germans had removed the figure of Christ from a crucifix and fastened the sergeant to it whilst he was still alive. These allegations were investigated but doubts were cast over their authenticity as accounts from some British soldiers stated that the Germans did not actually occupy the area in question. This type of event was seized upon by the Allies who were never slow to show the Germans in a bad light. The matter would have rested as a piece of propaganda until 2001 when a documentary maker, Iain Overton, uncovered evidence that this story could well have been true. He even was able to provide the name of the Canadian sergeant. This, of course, takes the reader away from the subject of this article namely John Charteris.
Leaving the torture story behind another coup on the propaganda front attributed to Charteris was the Kadaver Factory which was first mentioned in early 1915. In this many people in the allied countries were led to believe that the Germans were using fat rendered from corpses on the battlefield to make margarine and munitions. In fact it was dead animals that were being used for this purpose. The German word for animal corpse, kadaver, is of course cadaver in English which made the story more plausible.When the story was reported it naturally caused worldwide condemnation. The Germans, of course, denied them, but their denials were largely ignored. These rumours died out until the story was published in a Shanghai newspaper, the North China Herald. In April 1917 it was published in a Belgian newspaper before The Times followed suit a week later. A factory was in operation near the German Belgian border according to The Times. If the results were as good as the company hoped, so went the article, another would be opened to cope with the corpses on the East Front.
It was later discovered that the story was planted in the newspapers by Charteris himself. He acquired a mass of material taken from German prisoners and dead soldiers. Included were two photographs, one showing a train taking dead horses to the rear so that they could be rendered for fat and fertilisers. The other showed a train taking dead soldiers to the rear for burial. The photo of the horses had the word kadaver so Charteris arranged for the caption showing the word kadaver being transposed onto the photo of the dead soldiers and arranged for it to be sent to the newspaper in Shanghai. The story had no factual basis and eye witness reports were invented. Yet again positive propaganda served the Allied cause.
Charteris’ promotion has caused a rift between Haig and the War Office. However, according to his biography, J M Bourne, he was, in many respects an outstanding intelligence officer. Unfortunately later events tended to reveal otherwise.
The first day of the Battle of The Somme on 1st July 1916 is well documented as a disastrous day for the British. The British incurred some 58,000 casualties, nearly 20,000 of whom were killed on that day alone. One author, Christopher Andrew, argued that Charteris was partly responsible for this disaster. His intelligence reports had been designed to boost Haig’s morale, however, according to Andrew they “crossed the frontier between optimism and delusion”. Yet two months after this disaster Charteris told Haig that he was of the opinion that the Germans could collapse before the year was out.
As we all know the war continued for another two years before the armistice was signed. The British suffered further defeats before the end of the conflict not least at Cambrai which Haig considered to be a failure. Cambrai had reinforced his doubts about the ability of tanks to win the war. An official enquiry was held after Cambrai. This blamed Charteris for “intelligence failures”. Haig was asked to sack him and in January 1918 he was appointed director of transportation in France.
Despite his shortcomings as an intelligence officer he was a well decorated soldier. During the course of his Great War career he was honoured by both France and Belgium. In addition in October 1918 he was awarded the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun 3rd Class; the Japanese were an ally during World War 1.
Although the Great War ended in 1918, Charteris did not retire from the Army until 1922. He stood successfully for Parliament as the Conservative member for Dumfriesshire and served from 1924 until 1929. His biographer, J M Bourne, noted that “his parliamentary career was marked by a humane interest in agriculture, and in the welfare of animals and of war veterans and their families”.
His time in parliament was not without controversy. During a visit to New York in October 1925 he made an after dinner speech to the National Arts Club in Manhattan which included a number of anecdotes about spies and spying during World War 1. The Kadaver Factory story was mentioned. At that time in the USA it was still widely believed to be true, however, he said that it had been created by British intelligence. The story had been leaked to China as Britain was concerned that China, if it did enter the war, may have done so on the German side. It had been sent to China as they had a great reverence for the dead and seeing the image and story might align them to the Allied cause should the country have decided to take up arms. The story then spread worldwide.
This revelation was reported in the UK not least in The Times of 22nd October 1925. When he returned from the USA Charteris was summoned to the War Office. Shortly afterwards he issued a statement categorically denying what he had said in New York. It was understood that the War Office now regarded the incident as closed and that no further enquiry was likely to be held.
After leaving parliament he wrote two biographies of Douglas Haig which were published in 1929 and 1933 respectively. Bookman described it as ” A very fine piece of authoritative biography”, while the Observer noted that it was “an extremely good book”. The foreword was written by John Buchan. As already mentioned his collection of letters and other memoirs was published in 1933 the year he was president of the London Section of the Kelvinside Academical Club.
In 1913, before the outbreak of war he had married Noel Emily Beatrice Hodgson. They had three sons, Douglas, Nigel and Euan. All three served in the army during World War 2. Euan tragically was killed in December 1942 whilst serving in North Africa with 2nd Para Battalion.
During the Second World War The Times published a series of suggestions by readers. One suggestion from John Charteris was published in the edition of 28th August 1940. His idea was to use old copies of The Times in place of envelopes. He backed this up by enclosing his letter in a home made envelope utilising part of the previous Saturday’s newspaper. Measuring some six inches long by three columns wide, it was folded and the open end sealed by a gummed label on which the address of The Times was written. Whether this idea caught on no one knows but given the scarcity of some commodities during wartime it was quite a useful idea.
John Charteris died at his home, Bourne House, Thorpe, Surrey on 4th February 1946, survived by his wife and his sons, Douglas and Nigel. He was buried at Tinwald in Dumfriesshire on 9th March.
Whilst researching this article I discovered that the Charteris family had a link to the trial of Oscar Slater. The trial which took place in May 1909 became one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Scottish, if not British legal history. Slater was convicted of the murder of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy spinster, who lived in the West End of Glasgow. Slater was sentenced to death, however, following a petition a conditional pardon was granted and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He served 19 years before finally being released.
So what has this to do with John Charteris and his family? Marion Gilchrist was his aunt through marriage. His mother, Elizabeth was the widow of Marion’s brother James and she married Matthew Charteris in 1873. When Miss Gilchrist was murdered two men were seen running down West Princes Street where she lived. The description of one of them appeared to be a likeness of Francis Charteris. Evidently in the investigation the police did look at the brothers’ movements even establishing that John was in fact in India. In the ensuing years many theories have been put forward as to who the actual murderer was. Several family members were “in the frame” including one Wingate Birrell, the son of Marion’s sister, Janet. Marion had apparently inherited some £40,000 – £80,000 (in todays values this equates to several million pounds) and may have altered her will leaving out several family members. She also kept a large quantity of valuable jewellery in her home.
Following Slater’s release no one was subsequently charged with the murder so it remains unsolved. Various authors have speculated as to the actual killer and Wingate Birrell seems to have been the likely suspect. However, as two men were apparently spotted fleeing the murder scene, was the other Francis Charteris? Certainly the Charteris family were well connected in Glasgow circles and Slater, who was regarded as a somewhat shady character, would seem to have been the one who was the “fall guy”. Birrell died in London of tuberculosis in early 1909 before the Slater trial took place.
(The credit for the attached photograph should read – John Charteris by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, 1917, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, reference NPG x166483)