In August 1914 on the outbreak of World War I, whilst still at the junior officer rank of captain, Charteris was appointed an Aide-de-Camp to Haig, whom he accompanied to France with the British Expeditionary Force. In September 1914 Haig issued him with an order to establish an Intelligence Office in I Corps Headquarters, Haig’s Command, with the aim of providing operational information on the activities of the Imperial German Army. Despite being fluent in French and German Charteris had no background or formal training in intelligence work. He remained in Haig’s retinue engaged in this work when I Corps was enlarged and converted into the B.E.F.’s First Army in December 1914, and then on to the B.E.F.’s General Headquarters, when Haig was appointed Commander-in-Chief in December 1915, where Charteris was promoted by Haig to the rank of brigadier-general in 1915 at 38 years of age. Haig also awarded him the Distinguished Service Order for his work on his H.Q. Staff in 1915.
Charteris 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.He is cited by the Quote Investigator as the source for the saying ‘Military Intelligence is a contradiction in terms’, in his 1931 memoir At G.H.Q.)
Haig’s chaplain George S. Duncan later commented on how Charteris’ “vitality and loud-mouthed exuberance” made him unpopular. Lord Derby, then Secretary of State for War, began to have doubts about Charteris in the role as the B.E.F.’s Intelligence Chief after an incident in February 1917 when he failed to censor an interview given by Haig to French journalists.
Charteris was sometimes described as Haig’s “evil counsellor”, and has been blamed by some historians for Haig’s errors, with the accusation that he had a propensity in intelligence briefings to provide assessments of the German situation that gave Haig what he wanted to hear. 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 influential in Haig’s decisions affecting the conduct of military campaigns, and were increasingly criticised by Major-General Macdonogh, intelligence advisor at the War Office. Haig kept him on after his inadequacies had been exposed.
However, the historian John Bourne has stated that Charteris was methodical and hardworking. Herbert Lawrence, who became the B.E.F.’s Chief of Intelligence briefly in early 1918, testified to the efficiency of the organisation he inherited from Charteris when he replaced him after his dismissal. 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.
An official inquiry blamed intelligence failures by Charteris’ Department for the near debacle at the Battle of Cambrai, where a German counter-attack had retaken almost all the British gains.By the end of 1917 Charteris was known as “the U-boat”.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.
‘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. However, examination of Charteris’s original letters gives evidence that these entries were falsified, leading David Clarke, among others, to suggest that Charteris was using the Angels rumour for propaganda purposes.