The ’85er

Lieutenant Colonel J. A. V. Preston
39th Battalion JAVPreston

Marched the remainder of the way to Batoche today and joined Middleton’s command, arriving early in the afternoon. The field still bears all the marks of battle, with some dead half-breeds and Indians. Middleton’s men had been fighting practically night and day four days, and when it was over most of them went to sleep and nothing had been done towards clearing the field of burying the dead, which duty devolved to us in large measure on our arrival.

(Lieut. Preston, Diary, 13 May 1885)

John Alexander Victor Preston was a lawyer, Orangeman, and court official in Dufferin County. He was born on 4 December 1863 in Manvers, Canada West. Preston joined the militia at the age of thirteen and volunteered to put down the Northwest Rebellion of Louis Riel at twenty-two. He served as a lieutenant in the Midland Battalion under the command of Colonel A. T. H. Williams and fought at the battle of Batoche (9-12 May 1885).

Throughout the campaign in spring 1885, Preston recorded his thoughts and experiences in a diary. The young militia officer described the journey west, “hunting the redskin” and adapting to a soldier’s life. Preston also remarked on some of the notable personalities from the Northwest war. He regarded Gatling Gun operator Arthur Howard of the U.S. Army as “a fine chap, but a typical Yankee who believed that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” He called Cree Chief Poundmaker “a fine specimen of an Indian of quite intelligent appearance.”

39thCODescribing his inexperience in the military and warfare, Preston admitted, “Being a youngster who had not yet learned to drink like a solider, I merely tasted mine and passed it to an obliging neighbour.” Preston also attributed temperance and prohibition to his fellow soldiers’ good conduct on campaign: “Without anything strong to drink they were the finest and best-behaved and most loyal troops possible.” Thirty years later, Preston became the commanding officer of the 39th Battalion and continued to associate good soldiering. with sobriety.

While stationed at Belleville in April 1915, Preston confronted near mutiny in the 39th when one soldier died of spinal meningitis. Fearing an outbreak, nearly two hundred panicked soldiers broke out of the garrison and ran for the train station. A melee ensued as officers attempted to block the escape. Eventually both sides reached a compromise wherein the soldiers would be provided new billets and medical screenings. Preston subsequently attributed the disorder to the newly arrived volunteers’ lack of discipline and easy access to alcohol.

After sailing for England in June 1915, the 39th supplied reinforcements for the field until the battalion was absorbed into the 6th Reserve in January 1917. Preston was sent home for complaining to his member of Parliament about the reorganization of his battalion. He resumed his prewar career as registrar for the Ontario Supreme Court. In light of increased convictions for drunkenness during the 1920s, he came to deem strict temperance education and prohibition laws as a failure.

Preston died in his hometown of Orangeville on 7 December 1950.

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