Peter’s Dragoons

The major difference between the Russian army that besieged the fortress at Narva in 1700 and the Russian army at Poltava in 1709 was the large number of dragoon regiments that Peter ordered to be recruited and trained. These regiments proved a match for the Swedish dragoon and cavalry regiments on which Charles XII relied. They allowed the Russians’ superiority in infantry numbers and artillery to prevail at Poltava as they could not at Narva. To be sure, in December 1708, Peter issued an administrative military decree reorganizing the country into eight large gubernias, as well as requiring the recruitment of one male for every twenty households in the countryside, but neither of these had any direct impact on the Russians’ victory at Poltava. Instead, the fast-moving dragoon regiments and mounted infantry (Peter’s “flying corps”) were well suited to the open eastern European terrain and could be used to harry the Swedish advance, enter gaps in the enemy line in battle, and close gaps in the Russian line before the Swedish army could take advantage of them.

Initially, dragoons were mounted infantry using horses to carry them into combat. Later, dragoons were also trained to fight on horseback. Training of dragoons was more intensive than that of infantry or cavalry alone for the obvious reason that a dragoon had to be trained to fight both on foot and on horse. The dual role also presents a problem of classification as to whether in any particular case dragoons are to be counted as foot cavalry or mounted infantry. According to Chandler,

most contemporaries were unwilling to consider them cavalry, but classified them as mere mounted infantry well into the eighteenth century…. Commonly armed with a carbine, a bayonet and hatchet as well as broad-sword and pistols (although these last were withdrawn from English dragoons as early as 1697), the dragoon never wore armour, but sported the long cloth coat, tricorner hat, heavy boots and the distinguishing broad cross-belts supporting his sword, bayonet and ammunition pouch…. Besides their dual role in battle, they were expected to carry out reconnaissance and escort duties, and were, on occasion, relied upon to bridge streams or fill ditches with fascines of brushwood or trusses of hay to expedite the advance of the main army… and sometimes were called upon to build or raze field fortifications.

In 1699, Peter ordered two regular dragoon regiments recruited. In 1700 and 1701, according to M. D. Rabinovich, 8,600 gentry were levied for 14 dragoon regiments. In 1702, four more dragoon regiments were raised (one of which was disbanded the following year); in 1703, eight dragoon regiments were raised (one of which was disbanded the same year and two more within two years); in 1704, two dragoon regiments and two dragoon squadrons were raised; the next year, sixteen dragoon regiments (two of which were disbanded the same year and two more in the following year); in 1706, fifteen more were raised (eight of which were disbanded the same year and one of which was disbanded in 1709); in 1707, eight were raised; in 1708, eight (two of which were disbanded in the same year and two in the following year); and in 1709, two (from other existing dragoon companies). Six other regiments and squadrons were raised during this period, for which we do not have the year of their formation. Thus, between 1700 and 1709, dragoon regiments and squadrons were being raised at the rate of ten a year, but many were disbanded within a year or two, and the regiment members were absorbed by other regiments.

By 1702, a “Brief Regulations” (Kratkoe polozhenie) was published for the training of dragoon regiments. Russian dragoon regiments were initially named after their commanding officer, but that became confusing inasmuch as commanders changed from one dragoon regiment to another. Dragoons then tended to be renamed according to the region of recruitment. Exceptions included the Maloletnii Regiment (1703), Domovyi Squadron (1704?), A. D. Menshikov’s General or Life Regiment (1705), and the Life Squadron (1707).

We thus have a record of at least 88 dragoon regiments and squadrons that were formed between 1698 and 1709. Although evidence exists for the dis- banding of only 24 of them, with 64 remaining, another 30 or so may have been disbanded, concerning which we have no evidence. By 1711, Rabinovich’s sources tell us that another 5 regiments were disbanded, but according to L. G. Beskrovnyi, the Shtat of 1711 indicates that 33 dragoon regiments then existed. The process seems to have been a chaotic one, with regiments and squadrons being created, disbanded, and merged into other regiments, and commanders replaced frequently. Only one dragoon regiment took part in the Battle of Narva in 1700. At Lesnaia, 13 dragoon regiments took part; and at Poltava, 26 dragoon regiments and 4 dragoon squadrons took part.

After 1709 and before 1725, according to the evidence Rabinovich gathered, another 7 regiments were formed but 18 were disbanded. The records are far from complete, but they do indicate an almost feverish effort to raise dragoon regiments and squadrons between 1700 and 1709, less so after 1709. Initially, recruits had to supply their own horses, but these turned out to be of such inferior quality that the army designated 100,000 rubles for replacements. One reason for keeping standard cavalry in reserve and using it mainly for the coup de grace in battle was concern about losing horses. A horse trained for battle was a valuable asset. Steppe horses, while smaller than their Western counterparts and considered unprepossessing by observers, were available in abundance. One might then consider it likely that concern for the safety of the horses would be less for Russian dragoons supplied with steppe horses than it would be for Russian cavalry regiments supplied with European horses. Whereas the gentry were initially the ones requisitioned for service in the dragoons because they were able to supply their own horses, soon those from the lower social orders (i. e., those without a horse) were recruited to meet the military’s needs, although the pretence that they were from the gentry continued to be maintained.

Peter’s decision to recruit large numbers of dragoons seems to have been made in imitation of the Swedish army, in contrast to the prevailing practice of all other European armies of the time. The organization of regiments was based on the infantry model: 10 companies of 120 men each. Each regiment had three 3-pound cannon. According to Denison, Peter further ordered that 20 percent of the dragoons were to carry axes; 10 percent, to carry shovels; and 10 percent, to carry sharpened spades. In the Military Statute of 1716 Peter described this light force as a self-standing mobile formation,

detached to lie at the disposal of the general, whether to cut the enemy off, deprive them of a pass, act in their rear, or fall on their territory and make a diversion. Such a formation is called a “flying corps” [korvolan], and it consists of between six and seven thousand men. A force so constituted can act without encumbrance in every direction, and send back reliable information of the enemy’s doings. For these purposes we employ not only the cavalry but also the infantry, armed with light guns, according to the circumstances of time and place.

In the Swedish army, the mobile combat arm comprised nearly 50 percent of the forces, with a predominance of dragoons. The Swedes under Charles XI (r. 1660-97) and his son Charles XII, as Robert I. Frost pointed out, preferred “cold steel” in hand-to-hand combat with swords and bayonets. Both monarchs looked askance at the effectiveness of firearms in general. Charles XI provided his dragoons/cavalry with swords that were straight and narrow so that they could thrust rather than slash at the enemy. According to Nosworthy:

A slashing motion with a straight sword, as opposed to a slightly curved sabre, has little effect. A new formation was devised to facilitate the aggressive Swedish cavalry charge. Instead of advancing in straight lines, as was the universal practice in other Western European armies, the Swedish squadrons adopted an arrow-shaped [chevron] formation. The cornet, the center-most man in the squadron, was slightly in front of the others. The men on each of his two flanks rode `knee behind knee,’ so that they would both be about six inches behind him. Each man along the `line’ was arranged in the same manner, so that the entire squadron was placed in echelon to the left and the right of the cornet…. The Swedish cavalry enjoyed a number of notable victories using these tactics, and were even successful in capturing several entrenchments and batteries.

The King’s Regulation of 1685 tells us that the Swedish horsemen were to advance at a trot until within 100 to 150 meters of the enemy line, then break into a gallop. At a distance of 25 meters, or when they could see the whites of their enemy’s eyes, they were to fire their pistols. Charles XII banned the use of firearms during the cavalry charge and was the first monarch to do so.

As Frost mentioned, the tactics of Charles XII were aggressive, perhaps overly so at times, but they were not those of a madman and they did achieve significant victories against armies that were numerically superior. In a very real sense, the aggressive battle tactics of Charles XII were merely a continuation of the military thinking of his father and previous Swedish monarchs going back to Gustavus Adolphus. Charles XI had as his goal the integrated cooperation of all branches of the army, but he also realized that this could be accomplished only through years of drill and training. Each regiment went out at least once a year on maneuvers and encamped for two weeks or more. He realized the value of high morale among the soldiers and solicited from them any complaints they might have about their officers. The Swedish army was completely resupplied in the 1690s and reorganized under Charles XI. By the time of his death in 1697 his reorganization and master plan for mobilization of the army were nearly completed. Thus, the army that Charles XII brought into the Northern War was well trained, well supplied, and relatively untested. Both Charles XII and Peter I inherited armies that were already reorganized and reequipped-in other words, modernized.

As with the large proportion (33 percent) of pikemen in both the Swedish and Russian armies, the reliance on dragoons by both monarchs ran counter to the trend of armies in the Euro-Ottoman zone, and thus against the grain of “modernization.” After 1712, the number of dragoon regiments in the Russian army was reduced. Apparently, the dragoons were raised under Peter to counter those of a specific army-that of Sweden under Charles XII-which also utilized large numbers of dragoon regiments. Russia did not become a major player in European international relations until the second half of the eighteenth century. It would take more than a victory over a severely weakened and bedraggled, though still dangerous, Swedish army in the steppe some 350 kilometers southeast of Kyiv to accord Russia the status of a European great power.

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