Sharpe Facts

Sean Bean sampled 18th century warfare as fictional military hero Sharpe. But what was it actually like for the 'Death or Glory' boys? Here's a brief history of the 17th Light Dragoons regiment...

Sharpe's men

History

The 17th Light Dragoons date back to General Wolfe's victory at Quebec in 1759. Wolfe died in battle and one of his officers, Colonel John Hale, informed the King of the sad news. Hale was given 10,000 acres in Canada, £500 and a budget to raise a new fighting unit in preparation for the Seven Years War.

New methods

Officially formed in 1763, the 17th were a unique regiment. They preferred to use smaller, leaner horses to previous regiments, prizing speed and agility over strength and sturdiness. Swords were rejected in favour of a carbine - a short rifle - and soldiers carried a bayonet, pistols and an axe.

American duty

A decade after formation, the Light Dragoons were in action in British-ruled America. Their best achievement was routing a large militia force of 450 men in Philadelphia, losing just nine out of their 300 soldiers. But they were also at the heart of Britain's ultimate surrender to America as political tides turned in 1781. Captain Stapleton of the 17th handed over the copy of British capitulation to George Washington.

Dragoons marooned

Supposedly fighting France in the Caribbean in 1795, the 17th found an unlikely enemy in the Maroons - local descendants of escaped slaves - whose battle methods confused British forces. The 17th had to retrain in guerrilla warfare to gain some control. Conflict with the Maroons ended when one Dragoon, Oswald Werge, entered the valleys, dropped his weapons and offered peace to the locals. One emerged, and he and Werge swapped hats as a sign of friendship.

Indian mutiny

Around 1,000 Dragoons died in India when the Mahrattha and Pindari forces revolted in 1817. Only a minority actually perished in battle - most were killed by the outbreak of diseases such as cholera. The 17th left India in 1823, only to learn they were Light Dragoons no more but the 17th Lancers, a tribute to a Polish formation under Napoleon.

The legend lives on

Despite a long and active service with the regiment he created, John Hale also found time to father 21 children. All but four survived, and when Hale died aged 78, his epitaph read: 'Leaving behind 17 children and the 17th Light Dragoons'.