Sunday, February 8, 2009


Dragoons, according to Turner, were "Musketeers mounted on horses, appointed to march with the cavalry..." (p. 236). Dr. Johnson defined a dragoon as "a man who serves indifferently either on foot or on horseback." However, despite the fact that they shared certain attributes of each, dragoons at this period were neither infantry nor cavalry but were a distinct combat arm (one is immediately reminded of the familiar, ancient division of the combat arms, omitting the artillery, into "horse, foot, and dragoons").

Since they combined the firepower of the infantry with the cavalry's mobility, dragoons were very useful troops, capable of performing a variety of missions. Turner summarized these as follows:

Dragoons then go not only before to guard passes (as some imagine) but to fight in open field; for if an enemy rencounter with a cavalry in a champaign or open heath, the dragoons are obliged to alight [dismount], and mix themselves with the squads of horse, as they shall be commanded; and their continuate firing; before the horse come to the charge, will, no doubt, be very hurtful to the enemy: If the encounter be in close countrey, they serve well to line hedges, and possess enclosures, they serve for defending passes and beating the enemy from them (Ibid.).

The origin of dragoons and, indeed, the derivation of the term itself are obscure. Some French military historians, notably Susane and Père Daniel, have discerned their origin in the mounted infantry employed by Maréchal Brissac in the occupation of Piedmont (1550-1560), but others, principally Choppin, have correctly expressed disagreement with this view. Brissac's "dragoons" (the term postdates the mid 16th Century) were most certainly infantry pure and simple who were given horses captured from the enemy to increase their mobility and who were employed chiefly in raids and ambushes. They appear to be dragoons in the context of Turner's definition, but they were not organized or trained as such, and their existence as quondam dragoons was ephemeral, due entirely to their commander's adaptive genius. Indeed, Taylor, 53, points out that mounting infantry to increase mobility was not uncommon during the Italian Wars, and that the Venetians, Spanish, and Imperials had all piggy-backed infantry on the crupper behind light cavalry during 1509-1516.

The first true French dragoons emerged at the beginning of French military involvement in the Thirty Years' War (1635). (However, the ephemeral "Griffons" of the Gardes francaises predated this apparition.)

These units originated in the reorganization of 1635, when, as we have seen, the French cavalry was first organized on a regimental basis. Choppin indicates that at this time the carabins were dispersed, and three of the 12 new regiments formed were dragoons. These included one regiment of mousquetaires à cheval and two regiments of fusiliers à cheval. Choppin states that these units were dragoons in all but name.

Ambert, 1:330, states that there were no dragoons in the French army in the decade following the Siege of La Rochelle, but that in the reorganization of 1635 a 1,200-man unit, the dragoons of Cardinal Richelieu, was formed.

On 27 May 1635, just one day after the publication of the royal ordinance reorganizing the cavalry, the Marquis d'Alègre received a commission to raise a regiment of dragoons which was to consist of five 100-man companies. This regiment was in existence until 30 July 1636 (Courcelles, I:71).

Thereafter, for about a decade, the history of the French dragoons becomes somewhat murky. One regiment of the fusiliers à cheval was most certainly at Rocroi (1643), but the fusiliers do not appear to have survived the war. A new regiment of dragoons, that of the Marquis de la Ferté Senneterre, was raised in 1645 and served at the Sieges of Mardyck and Quesnoy (1646) and at the Battle of Lens (1648). It would appear that at the Peace of Westphalia and until l656 this regiment was the only unit of dragoons in the French army.

In 1656 a second regiment of dragoons, designated the Dragons étrangers du Roi and commanded by a certain Count Oddi, was raised. This unit passed to the Duc de Lauzun in 1658 and performed distinguished service at the Battle of the Dunes (1659). Thus, at the conclusion of the French Spanish War in 1659, there were just two dragoon regiments in the French army.

In 1660 the companies of La Ferté Senneterre were amalgamated with those of the Dragons étrangers du Roi, and the designation "étrangers" was dropped by the latter. Then, in 1668, the Dragons du Roi was divided, and two new regiments were created from it. These were Colonel général and Royal dragons, which ranked first and third, respectively, among the famous quatorze vieux ("old fourteen") of the French dragoon regiments created between 1668 and 1676.

In 1668 the duc de Lauzun was named Colonel général des dragons, and the corps was formally established as a separate arm. In 1669 there were 14 regiments. This number was augmented by 12 in 1688 (War of the League of Augsburg). In 1690 the number of regiments stood at 43. These had 6 companies, each of 35-45 horse, giving the regiment 210-270 men. The squadron was composed of three or four companies. In 1697, at the Peace of Ryswick, 28 regiments were disbanded. There were 30 regiments in 1704, following augmentations in 1701 and 1702; each regiment consisted of 12 companies.

There is little evidence that French dragoons were uniformed before c. 1680. Leliepvre states that there is fragmentary evidence that about that date dragoons were uniformed in blue and blue, red and blue, green and red, and yellow (where the second color is the facing color). His plate shows French dragoons of 1665 in yellow coat with red cuffs and of 1670 (du Roi) in blue coat with red facings.

Dragoons were normally armed with a wheel- or flintlock musket, one or two pistols, sword, and a hatchet or entrenching tool (these last not used in combat except in extremis).

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