Captain John Dent Bird

On 12 September 1874 Captain Bird of the 20th Hussars was murdered by one of his own men on the firing range during practice shooting. The killer was Thomas Smith a member of D Troop commanded by Bird. The 20th were stationed at Aldershot and that morning had proceeded from West Cavalry Barracks. They fired 5 rounds with their carbines at the 250 yard mark and moved back to the 300 yard point. Captain Bird stood to one side, turned to face the targets, and Smith aimed his carbine and shot his officer through the body, from behind. The captain fell and when asked what was the matter he pointed to the exit wound on his breast. The sergeant asked "Who did that?" and Smith said "I done it." He then threw down his carbine and took off his belt and ammunition pouch. Captain Bird died where he fell and was carried back to the barracks.

Thomas Smith was a man of bad character. He had served in the 20th for 16 years having been in the 8th Hussars before that. In India he had been court-martialled for threatening to shoot his Troop sergeant-major and imprisoned for it. After the murder of Captain Bird he was handed over to the police. It appeared that the motive for his crime was that the Captain had imposed a punishment of 7 days' confinement to barracks for a breach of discipline the previous day. Smith did not seem to appreciate that 7 days confinement was infinitely preferable to being hanged for murder. He was tried at the Central Criminal Court on 28 Oct 1874 and sentenced to hang at Winchester Jail.

John Dent Bird was born in India on 4 May 1842. He was an Indian Army cadet and commissioned as a cornet in the Madras Army on 20 Aug 1859. He joined the 20th Hussars on 30 Sep 1862. He was married to Katherine Aline Theodosia Shortt on 4 July 1868 and had a son born on 4 May 1869. Katherine died a few months after the birth, on 1 Aug 1869, so John was left a widower with a 5 year-old son when the incident occurred. The boy was at school in Germany at the time. Captain John Dent Bird was regarded as a 'most courteous and amiable gentleman, highly esteemed by his brother officers.'

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by Stephen Luscombe