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They fought for a country that sent them away

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A century ago, my grandfather did something remarkable.

He signed up to defend Britain, a country that had found no place for him and banished him as a young child to servitude on a farm in southern Ontario.

A story in today's Free Press tells of a long overdue commemoration of the contribution and sacrifices of thousands of British Home Children in the First World War, which began 100 years ago this week. Hockey commentator Don Cherry lent his support to the effort, as his own grandfather was a home boy who fought in the war.

The Home Children were British orphans, or children whose parents could not care for them, who were sent to Canada in the later 1800s and early 1900s to placements primarily as farm hands and domestic servants.

There are horror stories about the treatment of some of them. I know few details of the experience of my grandfather, Arthur Francis Wilding. He died in 1923, less than a month after my mother was born.

But I know enough to understand that it was not easy for him. He was, apparently, born out of wedlock in Victorian England around 1883 and sent to Canada a decade later by the Fegan Boys' Home in London.

He ended up on a farm near Guelph at the age of 10, worked as hard as you can imagine working on a farm in the 1890s, and, as an adult, found work with a railway as a fireman on locomotives.

He settled down to raise a family in Palmerston, Ontario, and had four children by the early stages of the Great War.

Nevertheless, he went into the recruiting office in Palmerston in 1915 and signed up for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, as Canada's field service was known in the First World War.

Whatever his experience had been -- an outcast child in England, sent to a land he'd never seen -- his sense of duty and partriotism overcame all of that.

In fact, almost all 10,000 home boys in Canada at the time signed up to fight in the Great War, pulled by the same forces as my grandfather.

He returned to Canada at the end of the war, had two more children with his wife, Margaret, and then died a young man at age 39 after a life of hardship, duty and sacrifice.

I'm glad the war contributions by him and thousands of others are being recognized -- it's about time.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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