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Statue of a dragoon on the Triumph Arc of the Louvres in Paris
Dragoons were originally infantrymen deployed by horse, but later became cavalry. They were therefore trained in horse riding as well as infantry fighting skills. Dragoon regiments were established in most European armies during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Originally dragoons were considered as separate from regular cavalry, but during the 18th century they evolved into conventional mounted troops trained to fight from horseback.

The word "dragoon" is derived from the French Army designation dragon which was originally the name of a type of firearm (whose name means dragon) carried by French dragoons. In French, Portuguese, and Spanish there is no distinction between the words dragoon and dragon.

The title has been retained in modern times by a number of armoured or ceremonial mounted regiments.

Origins and name

The establishment of dragoons in France evolved from the occasional practice of infantry being transported by horse when rapidity of manoeuvre was required. An early instance of this was ordered by Louis of Nassau during operations near Monsmarker in Hennegau when 500 infantry were transported in this way. In 1552 Prince Alexander of Parma, in order to secure surprise, mounted several companies of infantry on pack horses. Another suggestion is that the first dragoons were raised by the Marshal de Brisac in 1600,. According to an account in older German literature, dragoons were invented by Count Ernst von Mansfeld (1580-1626), one of the greatest German military entrepreneurs of the early 1620s. As noted above however there are several other instances of mounted infantry predating this. Mansfeld, who had learned his profession in Hungary and the Netherlands, did however often use horses to make his foot troops more mobile, thus creating what was called an "armée volante".

It is possible that the name derives from the dragoon's primary weapon, a short wheellock called the dragon, so named because the weapon of the first unit of dragoons raised in France had the muzzle of their weapons decorated with the head of a dragon. The practice of so naming a weapon stems from the earlier period when all gunpowder weapons had distinctive names irrespective of size such as the culverin, serpentine, falcon, falconet, etc. It is also thought that the mounted infantryman with his loose coat and the burning match at a gallop resembled the mythical dragon.

History and role

The early dragoons were organized not in squadrons or troops like the cavalry, but in companies like the foot soldier, and their officers and non-commissioned officers bore infantry ranks. Dragoon regiments employed drummers in the infantry style, rather than cavalry trumpeters, to communicate orders on the battlefield. The flexibility of mounted infantry made dragoons a useful arm, especially when employed for what would now be termed "internal security" against smugglers or civil unrest, and on line of communication security duties. The dragoon regiments were also cheaper to recruit and maintain than the expensive regiments of cavalry. When in the 17th century Gustav II Adolf introduced dragoons into the Swedish Army, he provided them with a sabre, an axe and a matchlock musket: many of the European armies henceforth imitated this all-purpose set of weaponry.

However, dragoons were at a disadvantage when engaged against true cavalry, and constantly sought to raise their horsemanship, armament and social status to the levels of the latter. In most European armies "dragoon" did not come to refer to cavalry until after the Napoleonic Wars, in the 1820s. Dragoons also acquired responsibilities for scouting and picket duty which in the French, Austrian, Prussian, and other armies was passing to hussars and other light cavalry corps. In the Imperial Russian Army due to the availability of the cossack troops the dragoons were retained in their original role for much longer.

An exception to the rule was the British Army. In order to cut the state's military budget, all Horse (cavalry) regiments were gradually demoted to the status of Dragoons from 1746 onwards--a change that placed them on a lower pay scale. When this change was completed in 1788, the heavy cavalry regiments had become known as either Dragoon Guards or Heavy Dragoons (depending on their precedence). The designation of Dragoon Guards did not mean that these regiments (the former 2nd to 8th Horse) had become Household Troops, but simply that they had been given a more dignified designation to compensate for the loss of pay and prestige. Starting in 1756, seven regiments of Light Dragoons were raised. These Light Dragoons were trained in reconnaissance, skirmishing and other work requiring endurance in accordance with contemporary standards of light cavalry performance. The success of this new class of cavalry was such that that 8 regular Dragoon regiments were converted to Light Dragoons between 1768 and 1783. .
Austria-Hungarian Dragoons Officers Helmet

During the Napoleonic Wars, dragoons often assumed a cavalry role, though lighter than armored cuirassiers. Dragoons rode larger horses than the light cavalry and wielded straight, rather than curved swords. Emperor Napoleon often formed complete divisions out of his 20 to 30 dragoon regiments and used them as battle cavalry owing to shortage of cavalry mounts, to break the enemy's main resistance. In 1809, French dragoons scored notable successes against Spanish armies at the Battle of Ocanamarker and the Battle of Alba de Tormes. British heavy dragoons made devastating charges against French infantry at the Battle of Salamancamarker in 1812 and at the Battle of Waterloomarker in 1815.

In the Spanish army, in 1635, Pedro de la Puente organized in Innsbruck (Austria) a body of dragoons, and in 1640 one was created in Spain as a tercio of a thousand dragoons armed with the arqabus. In 1704 like the rest of the tercios, the Spanish dragoons were reorganised into regiments by Felipe V. During the 18th century several additional regiments of dragoons were created in the Spanish Americas , some of them to function as a police force. In 1803 the regiments of dragoons began to be called light cavalry and shortly after 1815 this class of cavalry disappeared from the Spanish Army. However three regiments of Spanish dragoons had been reestablished by the 1880s and these continued in existence until the overthrow of the Monarch in 1931.

In several stages between 1816 and 1861, the 21 existing Light Dragoon regiments in the British Army were disbanded or converted to lancers and hussars..

Between 1881 and 1910 all Russian cavalry (other than Cossacks and Imperial Guard regiments) were designated as dragoons; reflecting an emphasis on dismounted action in their training and a growing acceptance of the impracticality of employing historical cavalry tactics against modern firepower.

In 1914 there were still dragoon regiments in the British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Peruvian, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Spanish armies. Their uniforms varied greatly, lacking the characteristic features of hussar or lancer regiments. There were occasional reminders of the mounted infantry origins of this class of soldier. Thus the dragoon regiments of the Imperial German Army wore the pickelhaube (spiked helmet) of the same design as those of the infantry and the British dragoons wore scarlet tunics, In other respects however dragoons had adopted the same tactics, roles and equipment as other branches of the cavalry and the distinction had become simply one of traditional titles.

The Australian Light Horse are similar to dragoon regiments in many regards, being a mounted infantry unit, where they normally fought on foot, the horses' primary purpose being to transport the soldiers. They served during the Second Boer War and World War I. The Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade became famous for the Battle of Beersheba in 1917 where it made what is the most well known successful cavalry charge in the Great War, and is considered by many military historians to be the last great cavalry charge ever made in modern warfare. Notably they made the charge using only their rifle bayonets as neither sabres or lances were part of their standard equipment.

Modern dragoons


The Brazilian president's honor guard is provided by a regiment of dragoons - the 1st Guards Cavalry Regiment - the Presidential Guard Battalion and the Cayenne Battery

This regiment is known as the "Independence Dragoons". The name was given in 1927 and refers to the fact that a detachment of dragoons escorted the Prince Royal of Portugal, Peter Ist, at the time when he declared Brazilian independence from Portugalmarker, on September 7, 1822.

The Independence Dragoons wear 19th century uniforms similar to those of the earlier Imperial Honor Guard. The uniform was designed by Debret, in white and red, with plumed bronze helmets. The colors and pattern were influenced by the Austrian dragoons of the period, as the Brazilian Empress Consort was also an Austrian Archduchessmarker. The color of the plumes varies according to rank. The Independence Dragoons are armed with lances.

The regiment was established in 1808 by the Prince Regent and future king of Portugal, John VI, with the duty of protecting the Portuguese royal family, which had sought refuge in Brazilmarker during the Napoleonic wars. However dragoons had existed in Portugal since at least the early 18th century and, in 1719, units of this type of cavalry were sent to Brazil, initially to escort shipments of gold and diamonds and to guard the Viceroy who resided in Rio de Janeiro (1st Cavalry Regiment - Vice-Roy Guard Squadron). Later, they were also sent to the south to serve against the Spanish during frontier clashes. After the proclamation of Brazilian independence, the title of the regiment was changed to that of the Imperial Honor Guard, with the role of protecting the Imperial Family. The Guard was later disbanded by Emperor Peter II and would be recreated only later in the republican era.

At the time of the Republic proclamation in 1889, horse #6 of the Imperial Honor Guard was ridden by the officer making the declaration. This is commemorated by the custom under which the horse having this number is used only by the commander of the modern regiment.
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Image:1918WD205.jpg|Brazilian presidential inaugurationImage:1335AC001.jpg|President Lula waiting for the Prime Minister of PortugalImage:1352FP484.jpg|Independence Day paradeFile:Independência ou Morte.jpg|Independence or death


There are three dragoon regiments in the Canadian Forces: The Royal Canadian Dragoons and two reserve regiments, the British Columbia Dragoons and the Saskatchewan Dragoons.The Royal Canadian Dragoons is the senior armoured regiment in the Canadian Forces. The current role of The Royal Canadian Dragoons is to provide Armour Reconnaissance support to 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2 CMBG) operations.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Policemarker were accorded the status of a regiment of Dragoons in 1921. However this distinction was cancelled during the 1960s and the RCMP no longer retains this status with the Canadian Forces.


Founded as the Dragones de la Reina (Queen's Dragoons) in 1758 and later renamed the Dragoons of Chile in 1812, and then becoming the Carabineros de Chile in 1903. The Carabineros are the national police of Chilemarker.


The Royal Danish Army includes amongst its historic regiments The Jutish Dragoon Regiment, which was raised in 1670.


The Finnish Dragoon squadron exists in conjunction with the Land Warfare School in Lappeenrantamarker and continues the tradition of the former 1. Squadron of the Uusimaamarker Dragoon battalion.


The modern French Army retains two Dragoons regiments from the 32 it possessed at the beginning of World War I : the 2nd, which is a nuclear, bacteriologic and chemical protection regiment, and the 13th, which is a special-ops parachute regiment.


In the Norwegian Army during the early part of the 20th century, dragoons served in part as mounted troops, and in part on skis or bicycles (hjulryttere, "wheel-riders"). Dragoons fought on horses, bicycles and skis against the German invasion in 1940. After WW2 the dragoon regiments were reorganized as armoured reconnaissance units. "Dragon" is the rank of an compulsory service private cavalryman.Enlisted cavalrymen goes by the same rank as infantrymen "Grenader".


The Dragoon Guards of the “Field Marshal Nieto” Regiment of Cavalry, Life-Guard of the President of the Republic of Perú were the traditional Guard of the Government Palace of Perúmarker until 1987. This regiment of dragoons was created in 1904 following the suggestion of a French military mission when undertaking the reorganization of the Peruvian Army in 1896.

The Peruvian Dragoon Guard continues to wear French style uniforms of black tunic and red breeches in the winter and white coat and red breeches in the summer, with red and white plumed bronze helmets. They are armed with lances, sabres and fusils.

At 13:00 hours every day the main esplanade in front of the Government Palace of Perúmarker fronting Lima's Main Square serves as the stage for the changing of the guard, undertaken by the Dragoons of the Presidential Guard.


The Portuguese Army still maintains two units which are descended from former regiments of dragoons. These are the 3rd Regiment of Cavalry (the former "Olivençamarker Dragoons") and the 6th Regiment of Cavalry (the former "Chavesmarker Dragoons"). Both regiments are, presently, armoured units. The Portuguese Rapid Reaction Brigade' Armoured Reconnaissance Squadron - a unit from the 3rd Regiment of Cavalry - is known as the "Paratroopers Dragoons".

During the Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s and the 1970s, the Portuguese Army created an experimental horse platoon, to combat the guerrillas in eastern Angolamarker. This unit was soon augmented, becoming a group of three squadrons, known as the "Angola Dragoons". The Angola Dragoons operated as mounted infantry - like the original dragoons - each soldier being armed with a pistol to fire when on horseback and with an automatic rifle, to use when dismounted. A unit of the same type was being created in Mozambiquemarker when the war ended in 1974.


In the Swedish Army, dragoons comprise the Military Police and Military Police Rangers. They also form the Dragoons Battalion of the Life Guards marker. The Dragoons Battalion have roots that go back as far as 1523, making it one of the world's oldest military units still in service and the only mounted unit still retained by the Swedish Army. Horses are used for ceremonial purposes only, most often when the dragoons take part in the changing of the guards at The Royal Castle in Stockholm. "Livdragon" is the rank of a private cavalryman.


In the Swiss Army, mounted dragoons existed until the early 1970s, when they were converted into Armoured Grenadiers units. The "Dragoner" had to prove he was able to keep a horse at home before entering the army. At the end of basic training they had to buy a horse at a reduced price from the army and to take it home together with equipment, uniform and weapon. In the "yearly repetition course" the dragoons served with their horses, often riding from home to the meeting point.

The abolition of the dragoon units, believed to be the last non-ceremonial horse cavalry in Europe, was a contentious issue in Switzerland. On 5 December 1972 the Swiss Conseil national approved the measure by 91 votes, against 71 for retention.

United Kingdom

As many as seventeen regiments were in being at the height of the Napoleonic Wars.

In the present-day British Army regular army, four regiments are designated as dragoons:

The three regiments named as Dragoon Guards were historically sometimes considered heavy cavalry, although by continental standards they were not heavy cavalry since they carried no armour (unlike cuirassiers). The designation "Dragoon Guards" does not indicate the status of Household Troops but is a distinction awarded to former "Regiments of Horse" when these were converted to Dragoons in 1746.

The Light Dragoons were formed as light cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars, and were similar to hussars. In the early nineteenth century several regiments were simultaneously designated as light dragoons and as hussars.

In the Territorial Army, one of the five squadrons of the Royal Yeomanry is designated as dragoons: The Westminster Dragoons.

United States

Towards the end of 1776 George Washington realized the need for a mounted branch of the military. In January of 1777 four regiments of light dragoons were raised. Short term enlistments were abandoned and the Dragoons joined for three years, or "the war". They participated in most of the major engagements of the war including, the Battles of White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth as well as the Yorktown campaign.The 1st United States Dragoons were among the first people to scout Iowamarker after the Black Hawk Purchase put the area under U.S. control. In the summer of 1835, the Dragoons blazed a trail along the Des Moines river and established outposts from present-day Des Moines to Fort Dodge. In 1933, the State of Iowa opened the Dragoon Trail, a scenic and historic drive that follows the path of the 1st United States Dragoons on their historic march.

In 1861 the two existing U.S. Dragoon regiments were redesignated as the 1st and 2nd Cavalry. This reorganisation did not affect their role or equipment, although the traditional orange uniform braiding of the dragoons was replaced by the standard yellow of the Cavalry branch. This marked the official end of dragoons in the U.S. Army, although certain modern units trace their origins back to the historic dragoon regiments.

The 1st and 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry were mechanized infantry units assigned to the 3d Armored Division (3AD) in West Germany during the Cold War. The battalions had overlapping assignments in the 3AD within the time frame 1956 to 1983 (joining the 2d of the 48th, the 1st of the 48th relocated to the 3AD at Gelnhausen in 1963 from a prior assignment to 7th Army at Worms, Germany). Along with the 1st Battalion, 33d Armor, they comprised the maneuver elements of the Division's 2d Brigade, stationed Coleman Kaserne, in the city of Gelnhausenmarker, Federal Republic of Germany. The Battalions served as part of NATO forces guarding the Inner-German Border against the Warsaw Pact. The unit crest of the 48th Infantry designated the unit as Dragoons. They are descended from National Guard units which trained for the First World War, and Armored Rifle Battalions which served with the U.S. 7th Armored Division during WWII. The 48th Armored Rifle Battalion, along with 1st Battalion, 40th Armor, in particular fought a tough battle in Vielsalmmarker, Belgium, holding off the German V Panzer Corps for three days at the crossing of the Salm river, during the German Ardennes Offensive (aka Battle of the Bulge).

The 1st Dragoons was reformed in the Vietnam era as 1st Squadron, 1st U.S. Cavalry, and continues to this day in the Iraqi War as the oldest cavalry unit, as well as the most decorated unit, in the U.S. Army. Today's modern 1-1 Cavalry is a scout/attack unit, equipped with M1A1 Abrams tanks and M3 Bradley CFVs.

Another modern United States Army unit informally known as the 2nd Dragoons is the 2d Stryker Cavalry Regiment. This unit was originally organized as the Second Dragoon Regiment in 1836 until it was renamed the Second Cavalry Regiment in 1860, morphing into the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment in the 1960s. The regiment is currently equipped with the Stryker family of wheeled fighting vehicles.

Cultural references

  • One of the main antagonists to Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) in the 2000 film The Patriot, Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), is the fictionalized leader of a real-life former British Loyalist regiment called the Green Dragoons.
  • The male protagonist in Bizet's Carmen opera is a dragoon and one of the tunes played during the opera is titled The Dragoons of Alcala.
  • In Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" the entire male cast are Heavy Dragoons, macho contrasts to the poet, Bunthorne, who is a parody of Oscar Wilde. Much fun is had with military uniforms, military manners and the character make-up of Heavy Dragoons.

See also

Citations and notes

  1. p.330, Bismark
  2. p.331, Bismark
  3. p.333, Bismark
  4. p.48, A Dictionary of Military Uniform W. Y. Carman ISBN0-684-15130-8
  5. page 22 "British Cavalry Uniforms Since 1660", Michael Barthorp, ISBN 0 7137 1043 8
  6. page 24 "British Cavalry Uniforms Since 1660", Michael Barthorp, ISBN 0 7137 1043 8
  7. Rothenberg, p 141
  8. Britsih Cavalry Uniforms Since 1660, Michael Barthorp ISBN0-7137-1043-8
  9. hussars and all but one of the lancer regiments wore dark blue.
  10. [1]
  11. site of the office of the president of Brazil.
  12. CARVALHO, José Murilo de. D. Pedro II: Ser ou não ser. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2007, p.98
  14. heraldist1


  • Rothenburg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-253-31076-8
  • von Bismark, Friedrich Wilhelm, Graf, Beamish, North Ludlow, (translator), On the Uses and Application of Cavalry in War from the Text of Bismark: With Practical Examples Selected from Antient and Modern History, T. & W. Boone, London, 1855 [988]

Further reading

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