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Edgar Dixon

As Poppy Day approaches Dr David Nicholl sets out to trace his grandfather who fought in "the war to end all wars". Just for balance, there's a UVF gun-runner on the other side of the family.

I knew both my grandmothers but never met my grandfathers. Both of them died in the late 1930's before my parents had reached the age of 7, so I have always been intrigued to know who they were and what they were like.

To my amazement, I have been staggered how little my ageing parents know about their respective fathers. Then I guess when your own mother is struggling to raise you and your siblings with the Second World War on, questions about "what happened to Daddy?" took a bit of a low priority.

It was only a couple of years ago that my father, now in his 80's, confided that my paternal grandfather had been a gun runner for the Ulster Volunteer Force in the early part of the 20th century. I suspect, but have been unable to prove, that many of the weapons may have come from Birmingham. My grandparents apparently had a bit of a shock when my Dad, aged 5, came down the stairs with a great looking revolver to play with!

Anyhow, a visit to the Somme this summer, prompted some questions over the dinner table with my Mum, ie whatever happened to her Dad ie my maternal granddad? I knew he had fought in the First World War, she must know something about him. Nope, not a thing, Granny had burned all his papers, there was no documentation. Not to be outdone, I wanted to find out where he had fought in this the "war to end all wars".

After a little research, I was actually amazed at how easy it was to retrieve my grandfather's military records for the First World War via the National Archive. Essentially by the end of 2008 all the existing WW1 records will be available online.

Although the details of some 2.5 million soldiers is a staggering genealogical resource, one needs to bear in mind that 60% of the records were destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1940. I struck it lucky - firstly the Luftwaffe didn't get Grandpa's details, and being near the start of the alphabet, all of Edgar Dixon's details popped up across the ether in a few seconds.

It has been fascinating for my Mum to read a letter from her farmer father explaining about his injuries, trench foot, that invalided him out of the War. We can now see his medical records from when he joined up aged 22 in October 1914 through to the details of the hospital ship, "The Princess Elizabeth" that returned him to England on the 5th January 1918.

I am still trying to work out exactly where he fought as it seems clear from the records, that the losses were so heavy that he had to keep changing regiments from the Inniskilling Dragoons to the Sherwood Foresters to the Royal Irish Rifles.

It has truly brought alive the tremendous sacrifice that all these young men made as well as making Poppy Day more meaningful for my own children.

Have you traced your family tree? What discoveries have you made? Leave a comment on the Message Board.

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