Sapper John Barton Carter

This is one of two essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in New Mexico.

The grave of Sapper John Barton Carter
The grave of Sapper John Barton Carter

The details of the early life of John Barton Carter are difficult to determine but it is clear that they bear no resemblance to the information he provided on enlistment in 1918. He was probably born on 3 June around 1866, possibly in or near Albia, Iowa, the son of Thomas and Lydia Carter.[1] He worked in Albia as a tailor.

Carter enlisted on 8 May 1918 in Toronto. Like many citizens of the United States, he concealed his place of birth, giving it as ‘Toronto’ and he concealed his true age, giving his date of birth as 3 June 1878. He joined the Railway Construction and Forestry Depot at Hamilton, Ontario for his initial training and was allocated the number 2500551.

Sapper Carter left Canada on board the troopship SS Waimana on 20 June. He arrived in England and joined the Canadian Railway Troops Depot at Purfleet on 7 July. Nearly two months later he was sent to France, arriving on 4 September, and a few days later joined 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops.

Following the successful deployment of the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps—a battalion sized unit made up of men of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company—five new battalions of railway troops were organized in early 1917. The first unit to be converted was 1st Canadian Construction Battalion. It had been raised in April 1916, primarily from railway men, but had been designated for use in general construction tasks. It arrived in France at the end of October 1916 and was re-designated as 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops on 5 February 1917. By the end of March four more battalions had been designated as Canadian Railway Troops. This most successful organization was commanded by Brigadier General J W Stewart, a Canadian who had been appointed as Deputy Director General Transportation (Construction) at General Headquarters. Unconnected with the Canadian Corps, this organization became the Corps of Canadian Railway Troops on 23 April 1918. By the summer of 1918, it had absorbed the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps and, in addition, comprised the Canadian Railway Troops Depot (at Purfleet in Essex); 1st to 13th Battalions, Canadian Railway Troops; No. 13 Operating Company Light Railway; No. 58 Operating Company Broad Gauge Railway; No. 69 Wagon Erecting Company; and No. 85 Engine Crew Company. It should be noted that a significant number of commemorative records conflate the Corps of Canadian Railway Troops and the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps, treating them as being synonymous, which they were not. A history of Canadian Railway Troops may be found here.

Canadian Railway Troops, 1918
Canadian Railway Troops, 1918

When Sapper Carter joined the 1st Battalion, it was engaged in railway and bridge construction tasks west of the River Somme in and around Marchélepot, although elements of ‘C’ Company were in Boulogne building dug-outs for No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital. The Battalion spent the next month in numerous railway construction tasks west of St Quentin and it soon became clear to Sapper Carter’s superiors that he was somewhat older than he had stated and not up to the demanding physical work. On 19 October, the 52-years-old Sapper appeared before a medical board, which found him unfit for further service in France, primarily due to arterio-sclerosis. He was sent back to England, to the Canadian Railway Troops Depot at Purfleet, before sailing for Canada on board the troopship RMS Aquitania. He arrived on 28 November and, after a period of leave, he was discharged on 30 December.

Carter’s movements immediately after his discharge are unclear but by early 1919 he had fallen ill and was admitted to Wesley Memorial Hospital in Chicago. In February 1919 he moved to Rockford, Illinois, almost certainly to the Rockford Municipal Tuberculosis Sanatorium. ‘Chasing the cure’ he later travelled to New Mexico for treatment in the state’s warm dry air. He died of tuberculosis at Murphey’s Sanatorium in Albuquerque on 14 May 1920 and was buried on 21 May in Mount Calvary Cemetery.[2]

An advertisement for Murphey Sanitarium, Albuquerque
An advertisement for Murphey Sanatorium, Albuquerque

He is incorrectly commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as serving with the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps. His death was recorded initially as ‘not attributable to war service’, which may explain why he does not appear to have an entry in the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance.

Lewis, N O. (2008). The Lungers and their Legacy: Chasing the Cure in New Mexico. El Palacio Magazine, Winter 2008.
‘Canadian Railway Troops’. (1919). Report of the Ministry of Overseas Military Forces of Canada. Ottawa: His Majesty’s Stationery Office. Accessed at Canada’s First World War Experience.

The War Graves Photographic Project for the photograph of the grave of John Barton Carter.

1. (Back) The only reference to his parents appears to be his New Mexico death certificate. His father Thomas Carter is recorded as being born in Missouri and his mother, Lydia Hazel, was born in Wisconsin.
2. (Back) South East Section, Lane 4, Grave 35.

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