In Collaboration With Charles Griffin


Officers and Men, 1760
The 17th Light Dragoons can trace their formation back to General Wolfe's victory at Quebec in 1759. One of Wolfe's ablest commanders and close personal friend was Colonel John Hale of the 47th Regiment of Foot. It fell to John Hale to bring back to the KIng the mixed news of victory over the French paid for in part with the death of Wolfe. In thanks to the role of Hale, the King granted him a gratuity of five hundred pounds, ten thousand acres in Canada and a commission to raise one of the five new regiments of Light Dragoons that were being planned as part of preparations for the Seven Years War. It was being noted throughout Europe that existing regiments of Dragoons were expensive to raise and maintain and inflexible on the battlefield. Light regiments were being raised to counter these problems of price and maneuverability. It was the Duke of Kingston who had brought the idea back to Britain with a unit being used on campaign against the Jacobites in Scotland in 1745. The unit was disbanded, but the idea of a light cavalry unit had taken hold within the establishment and five new such regiments were duly raised. In fact, originally John Hale's regiment was allotted the 18th designation. However, the Scottish regiment which carried the 17th title was quickly disbanded after proving unsatisfactory in their abilities and appearances. In 1763, Hales regiment was redesignated as the 17th for good.

The Light Dragoons main distinction from their heavier cousins was in the type of horse employed. Rather than use the big and burly heavy cart cobs the Light Dragoons preferred the use of smaller, leaner hunter horses (under 15.1 hands). Originally, the Light Dragoons were not equipped with swords of any sort rather their main armament was a carbine that could have a bayonet fitted, pistols and an axe. They were trained to be able to fire from the saddle. Speed and agility (of rider and horse) were prized over strength and sturdiness. These attributes would prove to be valuable ones in the small scale actions common to colonial campaigns for a long time to come.

John Hale set about raising the troop in his home county of Hertfordshire. Recruits were enticed with a bounty of three guineas for service to the King. Recruiting was brisk as Hale marched his new regiment through to Stratford and up to Coventry. The unit never did get to fight in the Seven Years War as was initially intended, it would have to wait sixteen years before it was first sent into action.

Regimental Identity

The evocative Death's Head emblem has been used time and again by desperadoes and tribes from time immemorial. Its first use as a regimental emblem seems to have been by a German unit of Hussars known as the 'Totenkopf' Hussars. As many British units and soldiers had served in Germany at around this time as part of the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763). It is probable that they saw this emblem and revelled in its associations of piracy and plunder - perfect values to a Light Cavalry unit. Indeed, down to the present time the regiment is still commonly referred to as 'The Tots'

American War of Independence
In 1775, the 17th landed at Boston to find that the war was not going well in the colonies. Boston itself was under seige and they had arrived just in time to see the British forces march off to Bunker Hill and face withering fire and casualties from the green patriots fighting like hardened veterans. The regiment spent 8 months holed up in the city with little food for themselves and still less for their horses. It was with relief that they were pulled out to Halifax and rehorsed as well as they could manage.

The 17th were soon to be back in the thick of action again, but the lack of imagination of the British generals would time and time again frustrate the abilities of the Light Dragoons. On the action on Long Island the 17th were to find themselves in an excellent position to trap the American army who were pinned with their backs to the river. Unfortunately, General Howe did not take advantage of the situation, and 12,000 Americans rowed to safety to Manhatten Island.

The 17th pursued these forces to the North before transferring to Philadelphia for the winter of 1777. Their goal was to keep communications to the city open. One of the most successful of these operations was when they routed a force of some 450 militia men at the cost of just nine British casualties. In May of 1778, the 17th came across a French force for the dfirst time, commanded by Lafayette. On this occasion, the American French force escaped the main component of the British force. Only the 17th Light Dragoons managed to have any success by rounding up some of the rear guard. However, politically and militarily the British position in Philadelphia was deteriorating and in June the British started to evacuate the city. It was the job of the 17th to guard the baggage train which had been sent on ahead. The 17th were brought back briefly to help General Clinton prevent an American force from attacking the main column. The success of this operation enabled the entire force to retreat the rest of the way in peace.

After spending the summer of 1779 in upstate New York, the 17th were transferred to the Carolinas. Unfortunately, the ships transferring the unit there were caught in a severe storm in which most of the horses died. They landed at Savannah and were attached to the British Legion there. After scraping together a force of horses, the legion set out on a 1500 mile long campaign that did take advantage of the 17th's maneuverability. Their first action brought the unit the valuable prize of new horses when they successfully repulsed an attack by American irregular horsemen. The Legion then took part in a surprise attack on an American force guarding the road to Charleston. The night attack was a complete success and resulted in yet more first class horses for the unit. Soon after this action, the American garrison at Charleston capitulated and the American forces tried to make good their escape. The Legion pursued them relentlessly with each horse carrying a cavalryman and infantryman. They soon caught up with Colonel Buford's Virginian forces. Despite being outnumbered, the British charged the force in three columns. The Americans held their fire for too long allowing the cavalry to get right up and in to them. In the ensuing melee it was thought that the Legion's commander, Tarleton, was killed which in turn enraged the British into fighting with an even greater than usual vigour. After their victory, they discovered that it was only the horse of Tarleton that had been killed, the Legion revelled in a new nickname of 'Bloody Tarleton' ever after.

The force was to continue its light dragoon tactics with the pursual of General Sumter after his defeat by Cornwallis. Moving swiftly, and doubling the infantry up again, the force secretly shadowed Sumter's force waiting for it to camp and drop its guard. Sure enough it did so and the 17th and the infantry struck furiously killing 150, capturing 300, releasing 100 British prisoners and capturing 44 wagons of supplies. General Sumter escaped half dressed and bareback on the nearest available horse. The mobility of the Light Dragoons demonstrated its effectiveness to all, including the Americans who were beginning to learn from these disasters.

The Legion and General Sumter were to clash again on the Tyger River some months later. This time things were much more evenly balanced and only a charge by the 17th averted a disaster by allowing the British infantry to extricate itself. General Sumter was wounded in the battle, but it was clear that the Americans were improving in skill and tactics. Just how far they had come was demonstrated shortly afterwards by the generalship of Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan. Splitting their forces in two, they lay in wait for Tarleton's Legion. American regulars were placed behind the militia (thus forcing them to fight) and cavalry waited on the wings. Sure enough, the British made their typical frontal assault and fell straight into the trap. The American infantry stopped the Dragoons until the American cavalry could hit them from the side. The 17th maintained their morale as the other Legion soldiers began to break and run. A vain effort by Tarleton and the 17th to save their guns was repulsed. Retreating furiously the British infantry (the 7th and 71st) were cut to pieces. This was not the end of the Legion and they did manage to meet Greene, and defeat him, again on the Haw river. However, the political tide was turning quickly against the British and the 17th found themselves having to surrender at Gloucester as Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown. Indeed, it was left to Captain Stapleton of the 17th to personally hand the copy of British capitulation to George Washington himself.

Central and Southern America
At the end of the American War of Independence, the 17th transferred back to Ireland and spent 12 relatively peaceful years in and around Belfast. However, in 1793 war with France broke out again and Britain was put on a war time footing. Actions against the French were taking place by proxy in the Caribbean and the 17th were duly sent there in 1795 after a rather disastrous campaign had taken place in San Domingo. However, the 17th were to find themselves fighting a rather unexpected foe instead. Soon after landing in Jamaica (by mistake) the local Maroons had started an insurrection. Descendents of escaped slaves, the Maroons knew how to use the local terrain to devestating effect and played havoc with the traditional techniques of the British forces. Soldiers of the 17th were selected to retrain as mountain and jungle warfare specialists and go in after the Maroons. These tactics ultimately proved successful and British forces began to take the initiative from the native Maroons. They were forced to capitulate soon afterwards. The success of these tactics meant that the 17th would be dispatched to Grenada to crush a similar insurrection and then on to San Domingo to fight the French. Unfortunately, Yellow Fever was to be a far more dangerous adversary here and the regiment took horrendous casualties from this scourge. All of this shuttling around the islands of the Caribbean was to leave one lasting legacy to the regiment. The nickname of 'Horse Marines' dates from this time. Its exact origins is unknown - but the amount of time the regiment spent on the waves was not in dispute. Indeed, the sea was to play yet another cruel trick on the regiment when its headquarter ship foundered on rocks on the way home in 1797. All of the men were saved, but their baggage and regimental books were all lost.

However, the unit was only to be in Britain for a short while before it was sent back to the Americas. This time to South America. As the Spanish had sided with the French during the Napoleonic Wars, it was felt that Spanish possessions made a legitimate target. An unofficial campaign had been instigated by Sir Home Popham, however despite initial successes the force was defeated by the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Unaware of this fact, the 17th, and some 3,000 other men, had been despatched to South America as reinforcements. When they reached Rio de Janeiro they learned of the disaster that had befallen the British. The momentum to continue their orders meant that the forced continued toward the River Plate and landed outside of Montevideo. The 17th were without horses and armed with Spanish muskets aquired in Rio. Acting as infantry they helped to repulse two sizeable attacks by Spanish cavalry on the force. The whole force then laid seige for ten days to Montevideo before directly assaulting it. The success of the operation meant that the 17th could find some horses to mount themselves upon. However, the local ponies were shorter and smaller than the ones the Light Dragoons were normally accustomed to. Despite these animals, the 17th and the British waited patiently for further orders as the British government digested events in the area.

The orders they received were to retake Buenos Aires. General Whitelocke was placed in overall charge of the forces but was to prove an incompetent and unfortunate choice. Indeed, he quickly demonstrated his lack of tactical skill when the force was landed outside of Buenos Aires and confronted and harrassed by Spanish light cavalry. Rather than send his own cavalry off to deal with the Spanish forces, he insisted on employing his own cavalry as messengers and bodyguards for himself. Meanwhile, his infantry had to advance without any protection whatsoever. His assault on Buenos Aires was little more successful. He sent his troops through the hostile city with strict instructions not to fire until they had reached the far side of the city limits. One thousand had been killed and fifteen hundred had been forced to surrender before the force even started to fight. It was a complete fiasco and the British were forced to agree to withdraw all of their forces from the country. The 17th were somewhat relieved to find themselves on a ship back to England in 1808. But they were only to remain there for six short weeks before being sent off to a new and exotic destination.

India, 1810
The regiment landed at Calcutta in August 1808 and were to remain there for a year before being transferred to Surat 200 miles north of Bombay. Here they were more than pleased with the high quality mounts that they were provided with. In 1810 the unit were to see their first action in the sub-continent when they were sent to Mandavi to put down a religious insurrection. There was one serious battle where the unit was forced to engage the locals armed with 14 foot spears. The lancers opted for the more traditional hand to hand attack rather than employ there more than adequate firepower. This decision cost three lives and countless wounds to the unit, although they did triumph over the religious fanatics who had lost some 200 men on the battlefield before being dispersed for good.

These small scale wars were a common occurence at this stage of India's history in the British Empire, the next action that the Light Dragoons were invovled in was of a similar nature. In 1817, there was a serious uprising of the Mahrattha and Pindari forces in the interior of the Sub-Continent. The 17th Light Dragoons spent over a year tracking down the fast, mobile and efficient Indian forces in difficult terrain. Although, the biggest danger to the Light Dragoon was not to be any soldier, but sickness and disease. In its fourteen years in India, the regiment lost about eight hundred men to cholera and other illnesses and only some 150 due to fighting. The regiment eventually sailed back to England in 1823 at only a quarter of the strength that it had when it had arrived some 14 years previously.

On their way back to Britain, the 17th put in at St Helena for resupplies. It was here that they learnt that there name had been changed and that they were now to become the 17th Lancers.

The Tots
The Horse Marines
Death or Glory Boys
Death or Glory
1759 - 1821
Lieutenant Colonels
1759 - 1821
1759 - 1821
1759 - 1821
Principal Campaigns and Battles
1761 Germany
1775 - 1778 American War of Independence
1776 Brooklyn
1806 - 1807 South America
1806 Buenos Aires
1807 Monte Video
1814 - 1820 Cutch
1816 - 1818 Pindaree War
Successor Units
17th Lancers
(1822 - 1922)
17th/21st Lancers
(1923 - 1993)
The Queen's Royal Lancers
(1993 - )
Suggested Reading
Historical Record of the Seventeenth Regiment of Light Dragoons (Lancers) 1759 - 1841
(London: Parker: 1841)

17th/21st Lancers
by Ffrench Blake (Hamish Hamilton, 1968)

Victorian Colonial Warfare: Africa
by Donald Featherstone

Regimental Museum
Belvoir Castle,
(01476 870262)

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by Stephen Luscombe