Sam Sweeney has honoured the death of Richard Howard, a soldier killed in WWI, by playing his finished instrument in Ypres.

A violin left unfinished by a soldier killed in battle has been played at his grave to mark the centenary of his death. Private Richard Howard, who died June 7, 1917 in the Battle of Messines, began making the instrument in 1915 before enlisting. Later completed by a luthier in Oxford, it was purchased by folk musician Sam Sweeney in 2009, who played the violin at Howard’s grave in Ypres.

“It was incredible. About 100 people were there and some of his descendants came. His granddaughter did a reading of a poem she wrote about him. It was very moving. It’s amazing – his family has been reunited because of this violin,” Sweeney told BBC News.

Mary Sterry, Howard’s granddaughter, was unaware of the circumstances of his death. “I was very interested to learn about him because I had heard nothing except ‘your grandfather died in the war’. People in those days didn’t talk about it for fear of upsetting someone. My mother was 11 when he died. I have to say the news when it got to me just blew me away, I was so excited. The consequences from it have been so great,” she said in The Telegraph. “It feels as if I have more validation; I was more secure knowing more about who I was.” 

Private Howard was a luthier and music hall performer in Leeds before he was conscripted into the 10th battalion, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment at the age of 35 in 1915. He was one of seven men from the regiment killed on the first day of battle in Belgium.

Howard’s violin lay unassembled until luthier Roger Claridge purchased it at auction and completed it himself. When it fell into Sweeney’s hands, the label bearing Howard’s name and the date 1915 prompted him to research the original maker.

“It was actually my dad who did all the research because I was doing my A-levels at the time”, Sweeney said.

Sweeney is now telling the story of the violin in his show Made in the Great War, which he is taking across the UK.


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