Category: Term of the day
Dragoon is the traditional name for a soldier trained to fight on foot but transport himself on horseback, in use especially during the 17th and early 18th centuries.
The name derives probably from the dragoon's primary weapon, a carbine or short musket called the dragon. Dragon carbines are said to have been so-called because they "breathed fire" — a reference to the flames carbines emitted when fired. According to another theory, the name originated from the title of Dragon given to Guillaume de Gomiécourt, an 11th century French lord, by King Henry I of France, and from his son Raoul Dragon de Gomiécourt, who trained a group of soldiers to fight both from horse and foot.
The creation of dragoons, although still not bearing that name, is now generally credited to Piero Strozzi, an Italian condottiero who fought for the King of France in the early 16th century.
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. The flexibility of mounted infantry made dragoons a useful arm, especially when employed for what would now be termed "internal security work" against smugglers or civil unrest. The dragoon regiments were also cheaper to recruit and maintain than the notoriously 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 (flintlocks from 1635): 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" came to refer to medium cavalry by the time of the early wars of Frederick the Great, in the 1740s. Exceptionally the 30 regiments of Russian dragoons in existence by the Seven Years War were still trained to fight as both dismounted musketeers and cavalry capable of engaging a mounted enemy in a melee. They also retained responsibilities for scouting and piquet duty which in the Prussian, French and other armies was passing to hussars and other light corps.
The term "to dragoon" dates from the earlier mounted infantry period. Dragoons were the most efficient and economical form of cavalry for police work and counter guerrilla warfare.
From the late 18th century, some regiments started to be designated as Light Dragoons, who rode faster and lighter horses and carried lighter sabres. They were trained in reconnaissance, skirmishing and other work requiring speed. In the early 19th century, the British Light Dragoon regiments converted to lancers and hussars. Between 1881 and 1910 all Russian cavalry other than Cossacks and Imperial Guard units were designated as dragoons, reflecting an emphasis on dismounted action in their training.
In 1914 there were still dragoon regiments in the British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, 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 (hussars and all but one of the lancer regiments wore dark blue). 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.
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