Our 2005 bicycle trip to the Great War Western Front was motivated in part to pay homage to six relatives from Cape Breton's Boularderie Island who died in battle between 1916 and 1918. Five of the six were Livingstones, all of them great-grandsons of Angus, the original Boularderie Livingstone and first Scots settler in this part of Cape Breton. Angus arrived in 1816 with a tool chest and the know-how to make a name for himself as a builder of fine brigantines and schooners.

Himself a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Angus's grandsons were a "vigourous and belligerent" lot, according to one Cape Breton historian. Being deprived of a war closer to home, some of the brothers in that generation went off to fight in the U.S. Civil War – on both sides. Great-grandfather William was one of them; the Union Army marker still stands at his grave in the Big Bras d'Or cemetery.

In the next generation, fourteen sons of Angus's grandsons, all born on Boularderie, fought in WWI. (How many other soldiers were produced by Angus's daughters and grand-daughters I do not know.) The soldiers who died are remembered on monuments in the Big Bras d'Or cemetery. In 2005 we – Janice and friends Mary and Mike – decided to ride the Western Front to see the graves and the battlefields in which the Cape Bretoners died.

Three of them were brothers: Charles, Hugh and David Livingstone. They grew up at Black Brook on Boularderie's south side in a house that still stands. Another Black Brook Livingstone, Roderick, was also a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). He alone lived to come home and tell about it.

It is possible nowadays to download WWI enlistment papers from the National Archives of Canada. (You can go to www.collectionscanada.ca/02/02010602_e.html for the enlistment papers of any relative who fought as a member of the CEF.) These papers list date-of-birth, occupation, and brief descriptive facts. From their enlistment papers we know that the brothers were tall for their time: Charles was 6' 2", David an inch shorter, Hugh 5' 11". Charles and Hugh had brown eyes, David blue. Charles was a lawyer, David a law student, Hugh a 'lumberman'. When war broke out they had roamed far from their Cape Breton birthplace: Charles enlisted at Yorkton SK, Hugh at Winnipeg, David in Halifax.

At the time of the 2005 trip we knew that much about the brothers and very little else. Examining the handwriting in the enlistment documents, I tried to infer personality traits from it, but we had no photographs and no recollections from living persons. On returning to Cape Breton after the trip all that changed: we had the good fortune to find a niece of the brothers, a delightful 85-year-old, Sarah (Sadie) Livingstone MacPherson, who provided a treasure trove of photographs, documents and family lore.

The middle brother, Hugh, was the first Boularderie Livingstone to die in the Great War, and his was the first grave we saw in Flanders. Hugh had gone west to Winnipeg and enlisted there in September of 1915. He died at age 34, August 6, 1916, of wounds suffered during fighting in the Ypres Salient. He is buried at the large and imposing Lijssenthoek military cemetery, southwest of Ypres. Hugh was a member of the 43rd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. One of the treasures we collected in Cape Breton is a souvenir picture book of the Cameron Highlanders, published in 1916. Pte. H. Livingstone is listed there among the 'Roll of Honour'.

From Sadie's documents we learned that Charles had made a success of himself as a lawyer in Yorkton, was mayor of that city just before the war, and had run for Parliament. Livingstone Street in Yorkton is named for him. He enlisted early, in January 1915. By comparison to the typical age of WWI casualties he was positively old at 43. He had just been promoted to Major when he was mortally wounded at Courcelette during the Battle of the Somme, October 12, 1916. Sadie's documents included an eyewitness account of Charles's death, and his last words: "Well, I'm done. I've done the best I can . . . Write to Father." Charles is buried in the very grand Pozieres Commonwealth Cemetery, near Courcelette.

The youngest Black Brook brother to die in the war was David. At the time of his enlistment in September 1915 he was a law student at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The most striking of Cousin Sadie's photographs is one of David in uniform, too boyishly good-looking to pull off the menacing effect he seems to be trying to achieve in this photograph. David was killed in action at Cambrai in the last great Canadian battle of the war, just a month before the Armistice. He was 30.

At beautiful little Haynecourt Commonwealth Cemetery near Cambrai – the last stop of David's war – we contemplated yet more rows of young soldiers devoured by WWI as two French Mirage jet fighters, the ultimate in modern military killing machines, roared overhead. We were told on returning from our trip that David had been his father's favourite. The loss of his third son so late in the war was too much for the old man to bear – within three weeks he too was dead.

It was from Cabaret-Rouge Commonwealth Cemetery, not far from Vimy Ridge, that the body of the Canadian Unknown Soldier now entombed at the National War Memorial in Ottawa was removed. Buried there is Lauchie Livingstone, a native of Big Bras d'Or and cousin of the Black Brook brothers. Lauchie was 22 when he enlisted in October 1915, the only married man among the six fallen soldiers.

Also buried at Cabaret-Rouge is Roderick MacLennan, my father's first cousin. Rod was born at New Dominion, on the short route from Big Bras d'Or to Black Brook. At Cabaret-Rouge we found the Cape Breton relatives buried just five graves apart in a cemetery containing 7,665 burials, more than half of them unknown. Both members of the 85th Battalion, the storied Nova Scotia Highlanders, Lauchie and Rod were killed in action during the fighting at Arras in the spring of 1917. Rod was 25, Lauchie 23. Born within a kilometre or two of each other on beautiful Boularderie Island they now lie a few feet apart on a hilltop overlooking a lovely valley and the village of Souchez in northern France.

My great-uncle Harrison Lincoln Livingstone was one of five brothers who served in the war. Like so many veterans Harrison was reticent to talk about his experiences in France, but I was a pest as a youth and managed to cajole a good many moving and appalling war accounts out of my uncle.

Among the most affecting was Harrison's account of learning in April 1918 that the brother he felt closest to, Daniel, had gone missing on a night patrol into no man's land. Harrison was denied permission to search for Daniel. A month went by then Harrison was ordered to report to a military cemetery near Arras – Wailly Orchard. Dan had been wounded, had used his Sam Browne belt to apply a tourniquet to his maimed leg, then slowly faded away as he waited for help. He was 23. At Wailly Orchard in the spring of 1918, Harrison – aged just 20 and already two years in the trenches – watched as his brother, wrapped in burlap, was laid to rest.

Wailly Orchard Commonwealth Cemetery may not be the grandest of the WWI military cemeteries but for me it was the most moving of the many we visited in Belgium and France. On the first day of autumn in 2005 I stood where Harrison had done 87 years before, awash with feelings for the great-uncle I never knew and especially for the one I did. Every Commonwealth War Cemetery has a visitor's register. Ordinarily we would enter a simple 'We Remember' in the register as we departed. At Wailly Orchard the entry was different: 'For HLL'.