Haig’s Intelligence

Title:                      Haig’s Intelligence

Author:                  Jim Beach

Beach, Jim (2013). Haig’s Intelligence : GHQ and the German Army, 1916-1918. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press

LCCN:    2013014366

D639.S7 B33 2013


  • Organisation — Leadership — Personnel — Frontline — Espionage — Photography — Signals — Analysis — Somme — Arras — Third Ypres — Cambrai — German offensives — Hundred days — Conclusion — Appendix 1: Identifications of German units at the front, 1916-1918 — Appendix 2: Contribution of sources to identification of German units at the front, 1916-1918 — Appendix 3: British assessments of German divisions on the Western Front, October 1918.


Date Posted:      April 5, 2017

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

In my view, Field Marshall Douglas Haig was the worst field general in history, maybe even worse than General Custer. His view of British youth as cannon fodder was the oldest of old-school fighting. Generals have the inherent sickness of fighting a new war as if it were just like the one past—and certainly there was no one quite distinguished in the Crimean War. However, here is another view, from a better educated writer than I about war and intelligence.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

In 1943, Stewart Menzies, chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), appointed “his old friend General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall assistant Chief of SIS”.[3] Sir Marshall-Cornwall had served in the Intelligence Corps during WWI and was a respected officer. He was also, however, the source of the controversial assessment that “Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig was kept in ignorance of the [true military] situation through a deliberate policy of concealment carried out by his chief of intelligence, Brigadier-General John Charteris.” (p. 1) Marshall-Cornwall claimed that Charteris had told him that he “believed it to be his duty to keep up the morale of the commander in chief and that if he gave him too much depressing intelligence, Haig might lose his determination to win the war.” (p. 1) In Haig’s Intelligence, British historian Jim Beach revisits this astounding allegation and more broadly the role of military intelligence in wartime.

The first part of the book concentrates on the development of British military intelligence in the War Office, at GHQ, the field headquarters. In 1914, the Intelligence Corps officers were inexperienced and, as demands in the field grew, their ranks were augmented by hastily-recruited nonconformists, who were “the untidy, the unmilitary, the unusual, the eccentric, and the lateral thinkers.” (p. 85) Nonetheless they became essential to the conduct of the war. Beach focuses on three senior officers, Gen. George Macdonough at the War Office, the controversial Gen. John Charteris who served Haig for much of the war, and his successor, General Cox. These officers developed the battlefield intelligence system, on the job, that influenced the wartime combat. Part One also describes the use of POWs, deserters, espionage, signals intelligence, and photography as important intelligence sources.

Part Two of Haig’s Intelligence is devoted to the influence of intelligence on the major battles fought under Haig’s command. The contributions of Charteris and Cox are of critical importance to these operations. Beach deals with Charteris’s personal relationship with Haig. He argues that Charteris’ “personal pessimism” and his “official optimism” (p. 322) regarding assessments during the third battle of Ypres, with its high casualties, led to his relief. His replacement, Cox, “restored both the standing and morale of the intelligence staff after Charteris’ controversial tenure.” (p. 302) But “when his assessments began to diverge openly from Haig’s,” (p. 322) he was sidelined before his untimely death. Haig was his own intelligence officer.

In the end, Beach concludes that, while “the intelligence system was far from perfect and many of Charteris’ assessments were clearly wrong, these shortcomings cannot be used to absolve Haig of responsibility.” (p. 321) The buck always stops with the commander. Haig’s Intelligence is splendid history, wonderfully documented. A major contribution to military intelligence history.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  129-130).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at  www.cia.gov.

[3] Jeffrey, Keith (2012, 2014). MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

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