By David Nicholls
“Ten-chun”… The command screamed across the parade ground and brought more than 400 pairs of boots crashing down in unison. The duty men had mustered. The silence that followed was broken only by the crack of a single rifle shot-and the soldiers saw an officer stagger and fall.
As the echoes of that shot across Brompton Barracks, Gillingham, died away, the last chapter of an almost incredible vendetta between a soldier and an officer was about to be written.
For the next week Major Francis Horatio de Vere’s life was to hang in the balance.
While he fought for his life the man who had shot him, Sapper John Currie, insisted that he was happy with what he had done. Distinguished surgeons looking after the major on that fateful day in August 1865 were full of gloom. The wound was fatal, they said. A week later they decided the major would survive.
Their optimism was shortlived … a day later he was dead.
Nineteen-year-old Currie’s death was to be prolonged in another way. Just two months later he was to stand on the gallows outside Maidstone jail with the hangman’s noose around his neck for five minutes while a minister prayed for his soul.
When the trap finally fell it took him more than three minutes to die. But the major’s funeral, which took place before Currie’s execution, was vastly different from the unmarked grave in a jail passage that was prepared for the killer.
More than 500 soldiers and sailors escorted the major, a Crimean veteran, on a gun carriage procession to Chatham station with full military honours. The body was taken to London and then to his native Ireland where he wished to be buried.
Currie was a bad soldier. The major was a strict officer and one of the most promising in the Royal Engineers. Currie’s list of military misdeeds was lengthy for the 18 months he had been a soldier. But perhaps the major’s strictness signed his own death warrant.
Currie seemed to bear him a grudge because he had been docked a day’s pay for refusing to work properly four months earlier. Currie, no doubt disgruntled by the loss, continued idling and was ordered to the guard house. Later the commanding officer confined him to his cell for six days.
For months, Currie was convinced that de Vere was holding a grudge against him. Brooding over the imaginary wrongs, Currie planned his death. Alone in a barrack room on 11 August, 1865, Currie calmly, with a smile on his lips, loaded his rifle, aimed out of the window over the heads of more than 400 soldiers and shot the major.
Lieutenant Arthur Durnford, who was standing within yards of the major, dashed to his help and heard him gasp twice: “Oh my God.” The lieutenant posted guards to stop men leaving the barracks. He went to a room in them and found Currie, and a strong smell of burnt powder.
He asked him if he shot the major and, unusually for Currie the reply was a respectful: “Yes sir.” Currie, at his trial at the Central Criminal Court, did not give evidence. His counsel argued that he had brooded over his wrongs until his mind gave way and therefore he was insane when he shot the major.
Mr Justice Shee told the jury that he had heard no evidence of insanity and it took them only 10 minutes to decide that Currie was guilty.
Mr Justice Shee put on the black cap, exorted the prisoner to prepare for death and said: “All that now remains for me to do is to direct that you be taken to the jail of Newgate from where you came and from thence to a place of execution and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
The prisoner coolly turned round and walked away. But John Currie’s demeanour was to change as he lay in jail waiting for the morning when the hangman would visit his cell.
His relatives visited him but he made a new friend in the condemned cell. Mr John Greener a Presbyterian minister in Maidstone was able soon after the trial to say that for the first time Currie had said that he was sorry for killing the major.
And Currie wrote a letter to William Carter, a brother soldier of his who shared his room before the shooting. In it Currie said: “Do your duty well and do not think of any vice or malice against anyone but ask God to help you through the trials of this world.” Currie’s father said goodbye to his son the day before the execution. He slept for a few hours the night before, had a light breakfast and then continued to pray with Mr Greener.
Before being bound by the executioner Calcraft, he asked Mr Greener to pray for him on the scaffold. The crowd was a small one. The executioner put the rope round his neck. Then Mr Greener launched into his five-minute prayer while the prisoner stood swaying in an agony of waiting. Visible shudders ran through the crowd but the moment the prayer ended the drop fell.
Currie struggled violently for two or three minutes. Then as the last breath was wrung from his body, the shame he had brought on a proud regiment was purged.