Dragoones - a brief history

Dragoones - A brief history

“They took us for musketeers, seeing that no animal in the world is more like a musketeer than is a dragoon, and if a dragoon falls from his horse, he rises up a musketeer.”

The dragoon as a troop type is generally thought to have originated in late sixteenth century France. Although there were instances, such as the dragoons of the New Model Army at Naseby, of them charging as a formed body of Horse, dragoons were in fact little more than infantry on horseback. They would be mounted to provide them with the necessary mobility to enable them to ride with bodies of Horse but would dismount to fight, thereby providing the fixed firepower of musketeers in support of the fluid shock tactics of cavalry.

In the hedgerow fighting of the Civil Wars dragoons were to prove to be the most useful of all soldiers. Controlling the area around his garrison with the often very limited resources at his disposal was frequently a local commander's most serious problem. Being relatively cheap to raise and equip, the mobility of the dragoons enabled them to patrol friendly country for supplies and carry out raids deep into areas under enemy control.

Woodcut of 17C musketeers

When attached to field armies dragoons would act as scouts and foragers as well as being ideal for the rapid taking and holding of important strategic points along the route of march such as fords or bridges. Dragoons were also the soldiers of choice for such arduous roles as picket duty and guarding camp.

In battle dragoons were neither fish nor fowl to the military theorists of the day and did not feature prominently in their battle plans. They were often used in support of cavalry, firing from the flanks of a charging body or capturing some obstacle to the attack such as a hedge, ditch or wall. Their manoeuvrability gave them an advantage over musketeers but since supporting pikemen could not accompany them dragoons could not hold their ground in the face of attack by either Horse or formed bodies of Foot unless they had the advantage of cover or terrain. However, when hard pressed dragoons had the enviable ability to remount and withdraw as rapidly as they had arrived.

Richard Atkyns says of a dragoon action at Tog-Hill at the battle of Lansdown,“About three of the clock they (seeing their advantage) sent down a strong party of Horse, commanded by Colonel Burrell, Major Vantruske and others; not less than three hundred, and five or six hundered dragoons on both sides of the hedges, to make way for their advance, and to make good their retreat....Our Hourse being placed before our Foot and Cannon, we commanded off troop by troop; and being within half musket shot of the hedges lined on both sides by their dragoons; several horses were killed, and some of our men; their muskets playing very hard upon our Horse, made us retreat so disorderly, that they fell foul upon our Foot, and indeed there was not room enough for us to retreat in order unless we had gone upon the very mouths of their muskets; I suppose the stratagem was to draw on their party of Horse upon our Foot and Cannon, the better to rout them and then our Hourse to fall in upon them to do execution; for the dragoons making their way by pioneers, were not discovered till they shot.”   In this action the dragoons supported cavalry, forming a “forlorn hope” and using flanking fire to break up an enemy attack.

In spite of the misgivings of the military establishment dragoons were providing themselves to be an invaluable resource to any commander in the field, jacks of all trades and capable of performing many and varied services in combat operations. It is likely that the wearing of cavalry style back and breast armour was the exception rather than the rule. It is however probable that the lobster pot and other helmet types would be worn depending on the demands of service. Dragoon firearms were by necessity usually smaller and lighter than the weapons of musketeers owing to the demands of riding. Snaphance and firelock muskets or carbines were favoured over matchlocks where they could be sourced. Dragoon mounts, being predominantly transport animals, were always of lower quality and value than those more powerful animals of the cavalry which served as both vehicle and weapons platform.