Long ago, the year I built my summer cabin on Boularderie Island in Cape Breton as a 24-year-old wannabe carpenter, my best friend in the world happened to be more than three times my age. Charles H. MacDonald – 'Big Charlie' to me and his many other friends – was 77 years old, an undiminished man's man. Charlie had made steel at the big plant in Sydney for 51 years, mostly as a melter foreman in the Open Hearth. He was a true-blue Cape Bretoner – with the accent to prove it – who knew the Island's geography inside out, knew the best deer-hunting and salmon-fishing locations. It was easy to imagine that Charlie was a third or fourth-generation descendant of a pioneer settler from the highlands of Scotland.

Except he wasn't. Only a few people knew that Charlie was a 'home child', one of the thousands – no, tens of thousands – of British children exported to Canada and other British dominions in the years before and after the turn of the 20th century. Children who were surplus or unwanted or whose families simply didn't have the resources to look after them. Charles Henry Molesworth was just five years old in 1899 when he was sent off to Canada, to who-knew-what.

The boy Charlie was luckier than many: he was taken by a MacDonald family who operated a farm in the Mira River area of Cape Breton. It wasn't paradise, Charlie told me, but it wasn't dreadful either. He flourished in his new country; in a few years, aged 17, he was a strong, strapping youth making steel at the big Dominion Steel and Coal Company mill in the Cape Breton industrial heartland. He couldn't have known it then – in 1911 – but Charlie would never work anywhere else.

In a few years 'The War to End All Wars' exploded. Charlie was lucky again: the work he was doing was considered an essential part of the war effort so the pressure on him and other young men manufacturing steel in Sydney was not to enlist as soldiers but to stick with what they were already contributing to the war effort.

Others were not so fortunate. At tiny Big Bras d'Or on Boularderie inside the main doors of the St. James Presbyterian church there is a bronze plaque bearing the names of those in the church congregation – 90 men and one woman – who did their bit for 'King and Empire' in the Great War. For 22 of the 90 lads the adventure in the battlefields of Flanders and northern France would be one from which they would never return. It is a measure of the scale of the home child program that of these 22, five were young fellows who – like my friend Charlie – had been born in England only to be shipped off at a tender age to a new life in Canada.

Young fellows like Leonard Brush, sent to Nova Scotia at age 11 in 1905. By 1917 Leonard had grown to a giant of a man at 6' 6", remarkably tall by the demographics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On April 9, 1917 at Vimy Ridge Leonard went over the top with 519 other officers and men of the 87th Battalion. By day's end 116 were dead, another 25, including Brush, missing in action. His body was never recovered. There is no war grave to visit for any relative who might want to pay his respects. Like so many other Canadians lost in the fighting in France Leonard Brush is remembered on Canada's national war memorial at Vimy, his just one of the 11,285 names crowded on panel after panel on the great memorial.

Just like his compatriot Brush, Harold Hutchings came to Cape Breton at age 11 in 1905. He lived and toiled at the Hector McKenzie farm in the Boularderie farming community of Millville. Even today Millville is farm country. When the war came along Harold saw an opportunity to do his duty – and have a trip back to his native land while he was at it. He enlisted in Nova Scotia’s 40th Battalion, later joining the 13th Battalion. He was wounded during the intense fighting of 12-13 June 1916 at Mont Sorrel and died of his wounds ten days later. He shares a final resting place at Wimereux with a famous Canadian: Lt-Col John McCrae, author of “In Flanders Fields”.

Yet another 11-year-old boy, Ernest Haden, came to Canada destined to find a new home on a Millville farm. Ernest was born at Wolverhampton in 1897. He was adopted by the Alexander Urquhart family of Millville, sharing a farmhouse home that still stands. In October 1915 at age 18 Ernest enlisted in the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders. He was killed in action May 6, 1917 in trenches near Givenchy after the 85th's capture of Fresnoy. Remarkably, Haden is buried in the same military cemetery, La Chaudiere, as two other Boularderie soldiers he would have known well when they were lads back in Cape Breton.

The Commonwealth War Graves marker at La Chaudiere is not the only monument in stone to Ernest Haden. He may not have been blood kin to his Millville family but the Urquhart marker at Black Rock cemetery near Big Bras d'Or makes it plain that Ernest was a cherished family member.

Ralph Smith came to Canada from Birmingham, also aged 11, in 1911. Ralph enlisted underage – he was just 16 – in the 106th Battalion in November 1915. He managed to endure the war right through to its final chapter. Ralph was killed in action August 28, 1918 at 19 while serving in the 26th Battalion. He is buried at tiny Sun Quarry British cemetery, several kilometres southeast of Arras. Smith shares a grave with another soldier, a common outcome when soldiers' remains were too shattered to separate one from another. Smith's grave bears a touching family inscription: In Loving Memory of My Dear Son Ralph. Reunion is our abiding hope.

Harry James was shipped to Nova Scotia as a nine-year-old boy in 1904. On October 5, 1915 six young Boularderie men traveled to Sydney to enlist in the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders. Harry was one them, together with his brother George and their friend Ernest Haden. Harry died during the intense fighting at Hangard Wood on August 8, 1918 – the 'Black Day' of the German Army – and is buried nearby in the beautiful Hangard Wood military cemetery.

Harry's casualty record card bears this unintentionally poignant account of his demise: Killed in Action. He was hit by several pieces of shrapnel during an advance between Hangard and Cancelette Wood. A stretcher bearer bandaged him, then laid him in a shell hole. His brother remained with him for a few minutes but then had to follow the attack and no details are available relative to the actual circumstances of his death.

Who knows how many home children became soldiers: boys who had been sent to Canada at age 5 or 9 or 11 and who in 1914 or 1915 saw the war as an opportunity to return to the land of their birth, perhaps to see long-lost relatives in England before moving on to the great adventure on the Western Front. How many of them had the least inkling of the horrors they were getting themselves into?

A number of the Boularderie home children survived the war and returned to Cape Breton, some damaged more than others. But for Leonard Brush, Harold Hutchings, Ernest Haden, Ralph Smith and Harry James the journey from Cape Breton back to the old country proved to be a one-way venture. They lie in battlefield graves, some known and marked, some not, mourned perhaps by families on both sides of the Atlantic -- those in England who gave them up as children and those who adopted them in Cape Breton and made them their own.