British Grand Strategy & the European Balance of Power: 1815-1914

From 1815 to 1914, the British grand strategy was to prevent any single European power from becoming dominant.

Jun 5, 2024By Alexander Gale, MA Applied Security & Strategy, BA History

british grand strategy european balance power


During the “Pax Britannica” (British Peace) which lasted between 1815 and 1914, the primary strategic goal of the British Empire was to maintain a stable balance of power on the European Continent. The British had relatively few ambitions in Europe themselves, but if a single major power rose to become a regional hegemon, they could threaten Britain’s vast international empire. To safeguard their interests, the British grand strategy was to invest in maritime power, leveraging the overwhelming capabilities of the Royal Navy.


What is Grand Strategy?

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The Battle of Waterloo, by William Sadler, 1815, Source:


In a political or military context, strategy is easily understood as the pursuit of ends (objectives) through the use of ways (actions) and means (resources and requirements). As the name suggests, a “grand strategy” is this but on a larger scale over a long-term period.


In essence, once a state defines its objectives, all its actions from a policy standpoint should align with and contribute to, the realization of those goals. Each policy implemented by the state ought to be dedicated to the advancement of the overarching grand strategy.


Although grand strategy originated as a military concept, it is equally relevant in a broader political context and during peacetime. The means and ways employed to achieve overarching grand strategic ends should be broadly diplomatic, economic, political, social, and military in nature.

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The term may be misleading because one might expect that only the bigger nations capable of “grandeur” are able to conduct a grand strategy. However, smaller states with little impact on the world stage can also employ a grand strategy, so long as they have a cohesive long-term vision. Of course, in the case of the British Empire, the scope of its grand strategy truly was vast in scale.


The Congress of Vienna 

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The Battle of Trafalgar, by J. M. W. Turner, c. 1822 or 1824, Source: Royal Greenwich Museums


In the 19th century, having defeated France, together with its allies, Great Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in a favorable position. After Napoleon was defeated and exiled to the island of Elba, the victorious Allies met at the Congress of Vienna between 1814 and 1815 to lay the foundations for the new European order.


The most important participants were representatives and heads of state from the four great powers who had formed the backbone of the Sixth and Seventh Coalitions: Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. French representatives were also present, with France effectively constituting the “fifth great power” despite their defeat. Representatives from “lesser powers” like Spain, Portugal, and Sweden likewise attended, as did a whole host of statesmen from the smaller European nations.


Each power pursued its own interests in Vienna, with much political wrangling over territory. For example, Tsar Alexander I of Russia wanted all of Poland, and Prussia sought possession of Saxony to bolster its control of Germany.


The Concert of Europe

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A map of the world in 1886: areas under British control are highlighted in red., by Walter Crane, 1886, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Unlike the other major powers, Britain had few territorial concerns on the European continent. The British Empire derived its power and wealth from overseas possessions in the Americas, the Indian subcontinent, and beyond. What the British wanted was a balance of power on the European continent that would not produce a regional hegemon that could threaten Britain’s maritime power or imperial trade network. At the time, the greatest threats were posed by a reemergent France and an ambitious Russia.


The British largely had their way. The diplomatic meetings in Vienna culminated with the five major powers of Europe—Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain—agreeing to maintain a stable balance of power, with respect for each power’s territorial boundaries and spheres of influence. They would aim to resolve disputes at regular congresses, although these were held on a more ad hoc basis. This so-called “Concert of Europe” would largely define the European balance of power until the outbreak of the First World War.


“Splendid Isolation” 

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Photograph of Lord Salisbury, by Elliot & Fry, 1880s, Source: The National Portrait Gallery


Relative stability and peace on the European continent and a balance of power that was more or less evenly distributed between the European powers was favorable to British interests. As historian David Reynolds explains, “Rather than the Pax Britannica sustaining an era of European peace, it was peace that sustained the Pax. Indeed, Britain was almost a free rider–allowed to concentrate its resources on global expansion because of the European equilibrium.”


In what the Victorian British statesman Lord Salisbury would come to call “splendid isolation,” Britain was satisfied to be on the margins of European politics, preferring instead to expand her vast empire, engage in international trade, and profit from domestic industry.


Thanks to the supremacy of the Royal Navy, which was able to keep the British Isles safe from a ground invasion, the British did not anticipate having to fight a war on their own turf and were, therefore, able to avoid making long-term alliances with the other major European powers that would have bound them to continental commitments.


The British Way of War

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Bomb ketches saluting HMS Victory, by Charles Edward Dixon, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Britain’s overarching grand strategic preferences influenced the country’s military strategy as well. Because Britain’s interests were global rather than European, a maritime strategy was favorable over a land-based one. Thus, it was necessary for the country to maintain a vast and powerful navy, but it could afford to have a relatively small army.


During the 19th century, the Royal Navy’s capabilities were greater than any of the major European powers and it could be depended upon to deter an invasion of the British home territories. The Royal Navy was equally indispensable in ensuring the security of Britain’s imperial possessions and could be called upon to cripple an opponent by incurring blockades and waging economic warfare.


The army typically faced non-European opponents on the fringes of the Empire. As Sir Robert Fry explains, the British army during the Pax Britannica was “designed to fight Pathans or Zulus rather than Hapsburgs or Hohenzollerns.” If the army was called upon to fight a European foe, the expectation was that this would be at a crucial point, such as at Waterloo; however, it would not likely be called upon to fight a prolonged campaign of attrition. The British preferred to fund other European armies to do the fighting and dying on land, while the Royal Navy would get to work on crippling the adversary’s economy.


Threats to the European Balance of Power

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Map of Europe in 1852, Victor Jules Levasseur, 1852, Source: Geographicus Fine Antique Maps


Although the British were largely content to tend to their own interests away from Europe, the status quo on the continent did not always remain unthreatened. If and when one of the major European powers seemed intent on achieving regional hegemony and upending the balance of power—as Napoleon had once done—Britain would get involved.


As Lord Palmerston, a pivotal figure in British politics between 1830 and 1865, explained, “We are connected and have been for more than a century, with the general system of Europe, and any territorial increase of one power, any aggrandizement which disturbs the general balance of power in Europe, although it might not immediately lead to war, could not be a matter of indifference to this country and would, no doubt, be the subject of conference, and might ultimately, if that balance were seriously threatened, lead to war.”


The Crimean War: 1853-1856

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The Relief of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville, 1897, Source: National Army Museum


After the Battle of Waterloo, Britain only fought one war on the continent against another major European power during the 19th century. In the decades leading up to the Crimean War, the British were concerned that an increasingly powerful Russia (at the expense of the ailing Ottoman Empire) would threaten their interests in the Mediterranean. In 1839, for example, Lord Palmerston wrote to Lord Beauvale that the maintenance of the Ottoman Empire was “necessary for upholding the balance of power in Europe, and is essential to the preservation of peace in the world.”


On October 16th, 1853, Russia formally declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The major European powers attempted to facilitate a peace treaty between the two sides at the Congress of Vienna, but diplomacy failed.


On March 28th, 1854, France and Britain—worried that the Russians would be victorious and gain control of the Eastern Mediterranean—jointly declared war on Russia. The alliance against Russia was later joined by Sardinia-Piedmont in 1855. The coalition between Britain and France was not a natural one. Mutual suspicion had not subsided since the Napoleonic Wars and both sides pursued different strategic aims with different approaches.


British Strategy During the Crimean War

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Dolby’s Sketches in the Baltic. A Sketch on the Quarter Deck of H.M.S. Bulldog August 15th 1854 Bomarsund, by Edwin T. Dolby, 1854, Source: Royal Greenwich Museums


The French deployed a larger army against Russia and preferred a land-based approach to the war whereas the British opted for a maritime strategy. As Professor Andrew Lambert explains, “Russia would be blockaded, attacked on all its coasts, and its naval bases destroyed.”


In 1854, British forces focused their efforts on the Black Sea, particularly Sevastopol, a crucial Russian naval base. However, progress was slow, and the British widened their attack to cut off Russian logistics and supply lines between Crimea and the River Don and Sea of Azov.


After six naval bombardments and numerous battles, Sevastopol was taken on September 11, 1855. The French had attained the martial glory they sought and felt that Russian ambitions had been sufficiently checked. Meanwhile, the British wanted another campaign to placate public demand for a Waterloo-esque victory, and to further diminish Russian power.


Even before Sevastopol had fallen, the French under Louis-Napoleon had begun peace negotiations with Tsar Alexander II. Peace between all parties was concluded on March 30, 1856. The partnership between the British and the French promptly collapsed. A common enemy was enough to briefly unite the two countries in a marriage of convenience, but after the war, Britain remained suspicious of France’s geopolitical ambitions for the continent.


Strategic Thinking in the Pre-War Years: Julian Corbett 

Julian Corbett, Source: US Naval Institute


British soldiers would not fight on the European mainland again until the First World War. Nevertheless, in the late 19th century and during the first decade and a half of the 20th, concerns were mounting in Westminster of a possible European war or invasion. Policymakers and the public alike were increasingly wary of the newly formed German state which was recognized as the most important foreign threat from 1900 until the outbreak of the war in 1914.


One of the most important strategic thinkers in the early 1900s was Julian Corbett, a civilian historian and military theorist. His ideas were supported by Admiral Sir John Jacky Fisher. Corbett’s strategy was definitively maritime in nature, derived from Britain’s historical experiences; it intended to capitalize on her strengths and minimize her weaknesses.


Corbett’s strategy would work by “raising the cost of naval war and forcing the enemy to seek battle or yield sea control.” It would involve actions such as the deployment of the Royal Navy to the North Sea to cut off Germany from sea communications and vital iron ore imports from Sweden. The army would deploy in smaller combined operations against vulnerable points, thus distracting Germany from its main military efforts which would likely be directed against France.


The First World War and the Continental Strategy

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British infantry from The Wiltshire Regiment attacking near Thiepval, 7 August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, by Ernest Brooks, 1916, Source: Imperial War Museum


British strategic thinking was undermined in the pre-war years by the fact that the Royal Navy and the British Army prepared divergent plans according to their own preferences. Naturally, the Royal Navy advocated for a maritime strategy, whereas the Army was in favor of deploying a large number of troops to the European mainland.


In August 1911, the Committee of Imperial Defense met to assess plans by the Army’s Director of Military Operations Sir Henry Wilson and a naval alternative by First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson. Sir Henry’s eloquence left ministers impressed, contrasting with the seemingly incoherent presentation by Sir Arthur. The meeting was not decisive, as has often been suggested, and no final decision was made, but it was certainly a step toward the continental strategy over the maritime one.


When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, Britain ultimately opted for the continental strategy. Key figures in government, including Prime Minister Lord Asquith, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, believed that the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to assist the French would prove decisive and that the war would be over by Christmas.


The End of the Pax Britannica and Its Strategic Consequences

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Britannia Rules the Waves, by Nicholas Habbe, 1876, Source: Bendigo Art Gallery


The decision in 1914 to dispatch the BEF to the continent marked a major shift in British strategic practice in favor of a large-scale commitment on the continent. The BEF initially consisted of just six divisions, but at its height was made up of 2.04 million men. By the end of the war in 1918, about 880,000 British personnel had been killed, which was approximately six percent of the adult male population and 12.5 percent of those who served.


The war posed longer term strategic consequences as well. The outbreak of a major war in Europe shattered the Concert of Europe and ended the Pax Britannica. Due to these circumstances, Britain’s grand strategy was forced to change.


The British Empire survived but was seriously weakened again by the Second World War. The Empire limped on for a few decades further, but the British relinquished control over an ever-increasing number of colonies. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as dominant global superpowers changed the geostrategic chessboard dramatically, and Britain, alongside the other major European powers it had once competed and cooperated with, was demoted to become a second-rate power on the world stage.

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By Alexander GaleMA Applied Security & Strategy, BA HistoryAlexander is an analyst focusing on geopolitics and defense. He is especially interested in WWI and how contemporary strategic practitioners can learn from military and political history. Alexander earned a BA in History and International Relations and an MA in Applied Security and Strategy at the University of Exeter.