The radicalization of a Boston son

December 4, 2011

Barton Carter during his early life as a stockbroker, 1936. Photo courtesy of Nancy Carter Clough.

Young men volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War for many reasons, but few American volunteers came from privileged backgrounds. When I saw 1938 and Calaceite, Spain, on a list of Williams College men who died in World War II, I was introduced to Barton Carter. The full story of Carter’s radicalization and untimely death led me to archives in the U.S., Britain, and, finally, Spain.Before he enrolled at Williams, Barton “Nick” Carter attended St.Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. His father, Winthrop L. Carter, was CEO of the Nashua Gummed Paper Corporation and was, for a period in the 1930’s, president of the New England Council.

At the time, Williams was a traditional, conservative college. An October 1936 poll found that over 75 percent of students favored Alfred Landon over Franklin D. Roosevelt in the presidential election. Carter’s scrapbook, 1933-1935, is mostly a collection of theater tickets and pictures of debutantes. The only item of a political nature is a New York Times clipping reporting some critical remarks directed publicly against Tyler Dennett, then president of Williams, by Harry Hopkins, advisor to FDR. Dennett, a good Republican, had refused, and in colorful language, to use federal funds to provide more scholarships for Williams students. This, despite the fact that lack of scholarship funds was holding back Dennett’s often stated determination to make Williams “look more like America,” primarily by accepting more public high school boys.

Perhaps important in understanding how Carter’s interests would evolve was another clipping, “The Right Kind of ‘Snob’ Speech,” of an earlier talk by Dennett at the Harvard Club in Boston. Speaking of political and social changes in the nation, Dennett said, “I do know that all special social privileges will be decreased.” He added, “Neither labels, nor the comfortable accession to father’s money, would suffice a man’s need anything like so readily in the future as they have in the recent past.”

In 1935, Carter fell in love. His inamorata was Joan Kent, an English woman visiting neighbors of the Carters in Brookline. Family opposition was unavailing. They decided to marry in July 1936 in England and then return together to Williamstown so that Carter could graduate. They left together in June, but, unaccountably, Joan backed out a week before the wedding. Carter, devastated and embarrassed, decided not to return to Williams. Instead, he found a position with an American brokerage house in London.

Within months, he had left his job to seek freelance work as a correspondent. Seeking advice, he went to Paris to meet Peter and Ione Rhodes. Rhodes, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and a friend of Carter’s aunt and uncle, was working for the Paris Tribune. Both Peter and Ione, but especially Ione, were seriously involved with French groups in providing assistance to refugees in Spain. About this time, Carter adopted the name “Nick,” possibly because of the Nick Carter detective novels that were then popular in Europe. The name change may have given him some separation from the protected life from which he was already edging away.

"Let Us Smash Fascism," SCW poster by Pere Català i Pic.

Carter reached Barcelona by January 1937. A Spanish Civil War propaganda poster entitled “Smash Fascism” in Catalonian, first printed in the autumn of 1936, was found in his papers. A pencilled note in the poster margin says “Sunday, January 3,” which translates as 1937.Although Carter had been the beneficiary of a trust fund since his 21st birthday on March 19, 1936, and so could fund his exploratory travels, he found breaking into freelance reporting difficult. Instead, he contracted to drive a truck between Madrid and Valencia for the National Joint Committee (NJC), an independent organization set up to raise money and channel non-military assistance to the Spanish Republic. Heading the NJC were the Duchess of Athol, a Conservative MP from Scotland; John Langdon-Davies, a science reporter for the London Chronicle; and Edwin Roberts, a Liberal MP.

The main function of the trucks was to take food into besieged Madrid. On the return trip, children were taken to safety from the terror bombing. In his letters home, “Nick” was confident he could minimize the risk of being strafed on the back roads to Valencia.

Completing his contract, Nick joined his father in London to witness the May 1937 coronation of George VI. Although the family wanted him home, Nick returned to Spain. Shortly thereafter, from Madrid, he wrote a passionate letter to the editor of the Williams College Record about a recent model League of Nations exercise for Williams students. The heading was “Carter, ex-’37, Condemns Absurdity of Model League in Letter from Madrid.” Didn’t they understand what was really happening in Spain? That non-intervention was a farce? That the fascists were terror bombing the civilian population? Carter’s political education was well-advanced.

By the middle of 1937, Carter had accepted a position with a group called Foster Parents Plan for Spanish Children in Puigcerda, on the French border. The FPP was the brainchild of Langdon-Davies and Eric Muggeridge. Donors, then mostly from England, would adopt an orphaned and/or refugee child and in monthly installments fund a comprehensive, home-like environment for their child, including food, shelter, education, protection, etc. It was a much more expensive proposition than the mass soup kitchens run by other groups and met criticism as unrealistic, given the magnitude of the refugee problem. The FPP children were housed in three colonies, actually former ski chalets. FPP had also hired Esme Odgers, an Australian woman, to work with Carter.

Carter with Esme, taking care of Spanish children at Puigcerdà, fall 1937. Photo courtesy of Nancy Carter Clough.

To keep the connection between the child and the donor positive, much effort was made in letter writing. Carter also started a monthly newsletter to share with sponsors in England. Because of increasing difficulties in finding food in Spain for the children, Carter visited England in August 1937 to propose changes in the supply line, all of which were accepted by the NJC. It is likely that Carter subsidized these changes with his own funds, received in a French bank just across the border in Bourg-Madame. In any case, Carter was successful in scrounging up food supplies in France and driving them safely back to Puigcerda.During the autumn of 1937, Carter wrote to his mother of his political discussions with, and increasing attachment to, Esme. At some point, Esme must have told him she was a member of the Communist party of Australia and, before embarking for Spain in March 1937, had been a secretary in the CPA office in Sydney. He tried repeatedly to shake his mother’s faith in capitalism and the private sector. We do not have his mother’s letters to him, but it is clear that he wasn’t making much headway with his argument.

Toward the end of 1937, FPP decided to open an office in North America led by Eric Muggeridge. Carter was asked to return to America in late November 1937 to introduce Muggeridge to his friends and other aid groups and to do fundraising with classmates at St.Paul’s and Williams. Carter also gave a talk at his father’s Exchange Club on December 5. Altogether, $3,100 was raised for FPP. Without lingering even to spend Christmas with his family, Carter returned to Spain by mid-December.

Within weeks, the Italian air force bombed Puigcerda, damaging the railroad station and killing a tradesman known to Carter, but not hitting the Colonies or the children. After this attack, officials dug precautionary trenches to shelter the children. Since the town was not a military target, Carter was incensed. Additionally, his relationship with Esme had changed suddenly and working with her had become difficult.

By late January 1938, Carter decided he ought to do more for Spain and decided to enlist in the British Battalion. A letter announcing his intention was received by his parents after he signed on in Figueras on February 22. His enlistment form has not been found, but some of the particulars appear in the Moscow Files. In these documents, Carter had declared himself a member, CPGB. Swayed by months of discussions with Esme, he must have joined the Party in England just before embarking on his fundraising tour. This decision was never revealed to his family.

After enlisting, Carter received military training at Albacete. At the time, there were severe shortages of weapons for training. In the field, Republican forces increasingly were arming themselves with captured weapons or weapons taken from fellow soldiers who had been invalided or killed. By March 17, when he wrote his last letter from Valencia, he was training as a medical orderly, but expected to be called to the front soon. The letter was received in the U.S. on April 2, three days after his unit was ambushed while marching north from Calaceite.

A month earlier, Franco’s Spanish forces, augmented by several Italian divisions, Moorish units from North Africa, the Luftwaffe, and German artillery units, had launched an attack to follow the Ebro River to the sea and split the Republic. Their first surge, a massive Blitzkrieg-like operation starting from around Belchite to the east of Sarragosa, had almost total control of the skies. The republican forces had fallen back to positions around Gandesa. Carter probably arrived at the front after the fascists started moving northeast after a week’s pause. By then, Republican communications were virtually non-existent, spotter planes insufficient, and officers had little idea where the fascist columns were. In this confused situation, Carter’s unit marched headlong into an advancing Italian column early on the morning of March 31.

Thinking the Italians were Republicans, the commander of the battalion stepped forward and was shot dead. Despite the inequality of fire power, there was stiff resistance as the Republican column moved off the road behind rocks and brush. When the active fighting ceased, however, an estimated 150 of 600 British battalion members were dead. Others were captured, many to be taken away and shot out-of-hand by a special Spanish unit that followed the advancing front for this purpose.

Carter was marching with his smaller unit at the rear of the column, which saved him from injury. A group of about 20 men hid until nightfall and then began moving with stealth, hoping to cross the Ebro River to the Republican lines on the north bank. Because Carter’s unit leader, Sergeant Alan Logan, was captured and wrote two letters to Winthrop Carter after his release from a POW camp in early 1939, we know of the tribulations of this brave, hunted group of men.

The countryside through which they moved was penetrated by fascist units moving toward the Mediterranean coast. At night they dodged their way through fascist encampments, sometimes stumbling on sleeping men. They rested during the day. Food and water were scarce, although Carter’s excellent Spanish helped enormously with scattered farmers who gave them assistance.

When they entered the Sierra Pandols, a mountain range just south of the Ebro, they had to move on the steep sides of narrow valleys. Above them were machine gun nests and below were fascist encampments next to the limited water sources. Men kept drifting off to save themselves as discipline waned and their desperation increased. By about April 9, they knew they were within a day or two of reaching the Ebro. However, the fascist advance greatly reduced their chances of reaching the river.

On the morning of April 9, Carter and several others inched up a hill to scout for fascist patrols. Logan reported hearing cries and bursts of machine gun fire. Carter and the men with him were never seen alive again. Logan pushed on down the valley alone and was captured by an Italian patrol two days later. Using a sketch map that Logan drew in his letter, and after some local reconnaissance, it seems likely that Carter was shot, or captured and then shot, in the foothills about a mile or two above the town of Xerta. We are unlikely ever to know for sure; international brigadiers did not wear dog tags, and there is no evidence that the fascist forces kept records of their work.

Carter’s story is especially tragic because of what he might have become. He grew enormously during his work in Spain, displaying understanding, compassion, discipline, and leadership in organizing to feed the orphaned children under FPP’s care. His political understanding also grew, and without any evidence of Communist Party dogma. The children wept openly when he left Puigcerda to enlist—clearly the worst decision of his young life.

The Spanish Civil War inspired popular support within democratic countries in reaction to the craven non-interference policies of their governments. Many NGOs were born at this time. Carter’s FPP is now called Plan. In 2009, the New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, revealed that, through Plan, he supported a child in the Dominican Republic. Kristof looked forward to season tickets, should this youngster become a Yankee! Nick Carter probably rooted for the Boston Red Sox, but I think he would have smiled.

A longer version of this article can be found in the Williams College Archives.

Nicholas H. Wright is a retired medical epidemiologist who lives in Williamstown, MA.


4 Responses to “ The radicalization of a Boston son ”

  1. Gail Smith on March 16, 2012 at 4:54 am

    Hi Nicholas
    What an interesting article! I thought you might be interested to know that my grandfather was among the British contingent killed at Calaceite. My father (who was only 6 years old when his father was shot)managed to track down the exact spot on the road where they were ambushed and we visited there some years ago. The town council kindly agreed to let us place a commemorative plaque in the small cemetery above the memorial tombstone to the local fallen men. A very proud moment.
    My father has since passed away but one of his dying wishes was that some of his ashes be scattered at the cemetery which we did in 2007.

  2. Nicholas H.Wright on April 25, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Dear Ms.Smith,
    I was also near Gandesa and Calaceite in Sept 2007 with Barton Carter’s neice and her husband, but we were never sure we had found the exact site of the ambush—staying, as we did on the newer road heading roughly west from Calaceite for at least 15 minutes until we were out of the canyons closer to the river and on a table land with long views in all directions. Nearer to Calaceite, an older, now disused road ran in parallel for a way, then disappeared. And it may not have been in the right direction. We surely missed the commemorative placque and the cemetery which our guide, the gentleman who created the war museum in Gandesa, did not mention at all.Would you have a sketch map that I could share with the Carter family, or use in case I return there for more research? Many thanks, Nick Wright

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