The Lusitania leaves the port of New York on 1 May 1915 for its last voyage (detail). National Archives

The sinking of the Lusitania and the fate of its Swiss occupants

The sinking of the British passenger ship RMS "Lusitania" on 7 May 1915 by a German submarine is one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history. 1193 men, women and children lost their lives off the Irish coast. The stories of the "Lusitania's" Swiss voyagers afford unique perspectives into the Edwardian Age as it came to a conclusion.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, thousands of Swiss moved to Britain and various locales throughout the British Empire. Drawn especially to the commercial metropolises of London, Liverpool, Montréal and Sydney, the Swiss established restaurants and hotels, joined banks and set up financial institutions, and found employment as domestic and culinary staff in the great houses of the British aristocracy. Edwardian Britons valued Swiss multilingualism, precision and punctuality, and manners. In turn, the Swiss earned higher wages and enjoyed higher standards of living in Britain and the British Empire compared to what they left behind in Switzerland. Through censuses, marriage and baptismal records, and letters, one is able to reconstruct the lives of the Swiss onboard the Lusitania’s final voyage: Adolf Samuel Nussbaum of Delémont (1885-1915), John Frederick Deiner of Liverpool (1883-1967), Elise Oberlin of Lachen (1888-1915). Fate and circumstance tied their lives to Britain, the British Empire, and ultimately the Lusitania disaster, which marked the end of the Edwardian Age.
Cunard Line advert for the "fastest steamers in the world", 1914.
Cunard Line advert for the "fastest steamers in the world", 1914. National Archives
Unlike the infamous Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912, the Lusitania sailed for seven years before the outbreak of the First World War. Financed in part through a generous £2.6 million government loan and launched in 1906, the Lusitania proved an immensely profitable and popular ship. She wrestled the coveted “Blue Ribbon” – an unofficial honor awarded to the vessel making the fastest Transatlantic crossing – from Germany upon entering service in 1907. At 239 m long, 27 m wide and 8.3 m deep, with seven decks above the waterline and three below, the Lusitania was the engineering marvel of her day. She maintained a speed of 25 knots (46 km), and could carry over 2000 passengers and 800 crew members. More than 320 km of electrical wiring circulated through her superstructure, and her two anchors weighed over 10 tons each. Strict class distinctions held sway at sea as on land, and three distinct classes of service operated onboard the Lusitania. Equipped with a library, smoking salons, a doctor’s office, a music room, a barber shop, a leafy Veranda café, and even elevators, the Lusitania was a floating palace, weighing close-to 32’000 tons. While other ocean liners came to surpass her in terms of luxury and size, the Lusitania retained an aura of glamor. Along with her equally renowned sister ship, the Mauretania, the Lusitania was the fastest ship in the world – the “greyhound of the Atlantic.” She personified British commerce and empire, luxury and national confidence as Britain reached its imperial apogee.
The Lusitania (left) and the Mauretania (right) around 1911 were the largest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liners of their time.
The Lusitania (left) and the Mauretania (right) around 1911 were the largest, fastest and most luxurious ocean liners of their time. Wikimedia

Vignettes of Swiss Lives during the Edwardian Era

With limited job prospects in Switzerland, Delémont born Adolf Samuel Nussbaum emigrated to England to launch his career as a chef. He first worked as a chef at a boarding house and later in a hotel in Cheltenham. In England, Adolf found love, marrying the Hamburg-born Johanna Wilhelmina Bergundthal in 1907. The couple was delighted when their daughter, Elise, was born in London a few years after their marriage. Around 1911, Adolf received the opportunity of a lifetime, when Cunard hired him as the Lusitania’s soup chef. This was a prestigious position as the Lusitania's four dining rooms served over 10’000 meals a day, and her first class kitchen ranked among the best in Europe. The fact that Cunard hired Adolf is thus confirmation of his talent. Moreover, Cunard, like the rival White Star Line, tended to hire exclusively British staff. Special exceptions were granted, but they tended to be restricted to the kitchens. Adolf found he was in good company onboard, working alongside the Lusitania’s Italian larder cook (Giovanni Battista Ottino), the French extra chef (Etienne Pierre Seurre), and the Spanish sauce cook (José Ulgar Leon). Although his days were long – 14 hour shifts were routine in the Lusitania’s kitchens – Adolf received a competitive wage, which he forwarded to his beloved wife and daughter.
The kitchen of the Lusitania, Adolf Samuel Nussbaum's workplace.
The kitchen of the Lusitania, Adolf Samuel Nussbaum's workplace. Wikimedia
The popular First-class lounge and music parlour.
The popular First-class lounge and music parlour. Wikimedia
Third class dining room.
Third class dining room. Wikimedia
John Frederick Deiner likely knew Adolf as he too was a part of the Lusitania’s victualling crew. The son of a Swiss father and an Irish mother, Frederick was born in Liverpool and belonged to a large, bilingual family. Proud of his Swiss roots, Frederick’s father, Johan, retained his Swiss nationality. He had worked as a waiter in the grand hotels of Vevey before relocating to England in the 1870s. Frederick followed his father’s example, apprenticing in hotels and restaurants as a waiter, in the vicinity of Liverpool, before finding employment with Cunard around 1903. Frederick, however, accepted British citizenship. It appears that Frederick began working on the Lusitania, as a first class waiter by c. 1913. This was fortuitous as he married Maria White in 1909 and had two sons in quick succession, Ernest and Norman. Frederick’s position carried tremendous responsibility, and he looked the part attired in Cunard’s stylish livery. Frederick worked long hours much like Adolf, but amidst luxury at the beck and call of the rich and famous in the Lusitania's exquisite First Class Dining Saloon. Meal times were strictly observed therein, and English traditions and etiquette reigned supreme. Europeans and Americans, unused to rigid English customs and manners, were often flustered as to how to conduct themselves during and after mealtimes. Frederick was thus tasked to not only serve deferentially but gently guide those passengers in need, which was not always easy.
Portrait of John Frederick Deiner.
Portrait of John Frederick Deiner. National Archives
Illustration of the first class dining room on the Lusitania, around 1906.
Illustration of the First Class Dining Saloon on the Lusitania, around 1906. Wikimedia
In contrast to Adolf and Frederick, Elise Oberlin lived and worked in a grand mansion in Montréal, Canada. Born in Lachen (SZ), little is known about her early life. In August 1913, Frances Stephens– one of the most-prominent women in Canada – hired Elise as her lady’s maid. Elise’s life changed instantly. Frances was a wealthy widow, originally from Scotland, who devoted herself to charitable causes. She owned beautiful properties, wore couture dresses imported from London and Paris, and was rumored to have the finest collection of jewelry in Canada. Although wealthy British women, like Frances, tended to hire German or French maids to project their elevated status in Edwardian society, Swiss maids were valued for their attention to detail and meticulous organization. Elise assisted Frances in a range of daily domestic activities, from helping her dress and doing her hair, to maintaining her wardrobe and overseeing her lively social calendar. She also took care of Frances’ personal shopping and oversaw her travel arrangements. Elise sent regular, ecstatic letters back to her family in Canton Schwyz detailing how much she enjoyed life in Canada. Edwardian Montréal was a prosperous and beautiful city dominated by the gilded mansions centered on the Golden Square Mile, and the social season was filled with legendary society balls and ice skating parties attended by British royalty. Elise would return to Switzerland for a final, happy visit in early 1914 and traveled back to Canada in April the same year.
Frances Stephens
Frances Stephens was a prominent lady in Montréal society. She died in the sinking of the Lusitania. Her body was found and was to be repatriated to Canada on the Hesperian when this ship was also sunk by the same submarine that had already torpedoed the Lusitania. Wikimedia
First class suite on the Lusitania.
First class suite on the Lusitania. Frances Stephens would have likely occupied a suite like this, with Elise Oberlin tending her needs. Wikimedia

World War One & The Lusitania’s Demise

Britain declared war on Germany and her allies on August 4, 1914. The Cunard Line operated the Lusitania’s route between Liverpool and New York City, on a monthly basis as a “public service,” following the outbreak of war. The Germans designated the waters adjacent to the British Isles as a “war zone” in February 1915 in retaliation to the British naval blockade of Germany. Thereafter, Germany’s new lethal weapon, the Unterseeboote or U-boats, targeted British shipping with growing success much to the chagrin of the British government. However, most passengers and crew who sailed on the Lusitania in 1914 and 1915 dismissed the possibility that the Lusitania would be targeted by the Germans. She was simply too fast to be caught by a U-boat, and the Germans would not dare sink a ship with so many innocents onboard. Nevertheless, the Lusitania regularly transported small arms, munitions and aluminum powder, which Britain purchased from the United States for its war effort. This was a fact unbeknownst to passengers and the crew, but well-known by the German government thanks to espionage.
The Lusitania arrives in New York harbour. Photo from September 1907.
The Lusitania arrives in New York harbour. Photo from September 1907. Library of Congress
On May 1, 1915, passengers in New York City boarded the Lusitania for her 202nd crossing. An official warning issued by the German Embassy about the risk awaiting passengers on traveling on British ships appeared ominously in New York papers the same day. Many passengers would never see this; others would ignore it completely. With 1266 passengers and 696 crew aboard, this was the busiest crossing since the war began ten months earlier. The majority of those aboard the Lusitania for this crossing were British or residents of the British Empire (1596), U.S. citizens (159), and citizens of Imperial Russia (70). Grateful to have retained their jobs despite the war, Adolf and Frederick were eager to return to Liverpool. The income from their work was paramount in supporting their families during the wartime economy despite the hazards they faced at sea. Elise boarded the Lusitania to accompany her mistress, in first class, on a private family trip to England. This was to be her first extended stay in Britain, and she was excited. Elise sent her family a card before she set sail, informing them that she was in the United States but returning to Europe, on the Lusitania, and would be in touch.
Warning from the German embassy in New York newspapers. Travellers are informed that Germany is at war with Great Britain and that ships flying the British flag are liable to destruction.
Warning from the German embassy in New York newspapers. Travellers are informed that Germany is at war with Great Britain and that ships flying the British flag are liable to destruction. Wikimedia
Map of the "war zone" declared by Germany around the British Isles. The Lusitania sank at the location marked in red on 7 May 1915.
Map of the "war zone" declared by Germany around the British Isles. The Lusitania sank at the location marked in red on 7 May 1915. Wikimedia
The Lusitania left the port of New York on 1 May 1915.
The Lusitania left the port of New York on 1 May 1915. National Archives
Steaming out from New York Harbor, the Lusitania set course for Liverpool. The voyage was uneventful across the Atlantic – passengers enjoyed the ship's amenities and idled away the time. By the evening of May 6, 1915, the Lusitania had reached the “war zone.” The morning of May 7, 1915 began with the Lusitania entering a pocket of dense fog. Captain William Turner, a veteran seamen with over 32 years of service with the Cunard Line, had to slow the ship as he tried to figure out his precise location. The British Admiralty had informed him about submarines lurking off the coast of Ireland, but he did not know their precise locations. The fog burned off by 11:00 AM, rewarding passengers with abundant sunshine and stunning views of coastal Ireland. Many onboard, especially the Lusitania’s Irish passengers, took this as an auspicious sign. Around 13:20 PM, Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger, the commander of the German U-20, glimpsed the Lusitania in the distance from the conning tower of his submarine. Schwieger was unsure if he could target the vessel, but he ordered his crew to dive and follow the Lusitania’s progress through his periscope. At the exact same time, Turner ordered the Lusitania swung inland, towards the Old Head of Kinsale and directly in the path of the U-20. Schwieger could not believe his luck – the Lusitania moved directly towards his submarine. When the Lusitania was only 365 m away, he ordered a single torpedo to be fired, which struck the ship on the starboard side, just beneath the Captain’s Bridge, at 14:10 PM. It would take only 18 minutes for the Lusitania to slip beneath the waves of the Celtic Sea.
The German submarine U 20 (front row, second from left) in the harbour.
The German submarine U-20 (front row, second from left) in the harbour. Library of Congress
William Turner, captain of the Lusitania.
William Turner, captain of the Lusitania. Wikimedia
Two explosions rocked the ship, in rapid succession, with the second being catastrophic. Lusitania began to list sharply toward starboard at 15 degrees as water poured into her superstructure at a rate of 100 tons a second. The second explosion compromised the ship’s steam lines, rendering the Lusitania unresponsive to navigation, although Turner tried in vain to beach her. It seems probable Elise was busy packing in her stateroom on D-deck after lunch – the Lusitania was due to arrive in Liverpool early the next morning – and Adolf was working in the kitchens when the torpedo struck. At 14:14 PM, the Lusitania’s central power failed, plunging the ship into complete darkness. It is horrific to imagine their final moments trapped in the decks below. The deafening screams of those trying to escape dark cabins and corridors, and the desperate pleas for help from those imprisoned in the Lusitania’s electric elevators would haunt survivors for the rest of their lives.
Illustration of the torpedo impact, shortly after the hit the Lusitania sank in the Celtic Sea.
Illustration of the torpedo impact, shortly after the hit the Lusitania sank in the Celtic Sea. Library of Congress
Frederick was luckier. He was in the midst of completing his luncheon shift and had access to the boat deck. It is known that he went to lifeboat no. 4, which was his assigned lifeboat, on the port side of the ship. The Lusitania had no system of public address, and so shouted instructions were either misunderstood or contradictory. Panic and chaos ensued as passengers and crew were left to fend for themselves with deadly repercussions. The Lusitania’s severe list made it almost impossible to launch the lifeboats as they swung out of reach on the starboard side and too far inward on the port side. Frederick likely witnessed lifeboat no. 4 crash against the deck, killing dozens. Of the Lusitania’s 48 lifeboats, only six were successfully lowered – all from the starboard side. Afraid to enter a lifeboat, Frederick tumbled into the cold, treacherous waters as the Lusitania made her violent, final plunge. He managed to find a deck chair, which he clung to for hours in the 11° C waters, until a fishing trawler rescued and took him to Cobh, Ireland.
Survivors of the disaster.
Survivors of the disaster. National Archives
The body of a victim is loaded from a ship, 24 May 1915.
The body of a victim is loaded from a ship, 24 May 1915. Library of Congress

Lessons from the Lusitania

News of the Lusitania’s sinking made headlines around the world the next morning as worried relatives awaited word of their loved ones. Adolf’s widow, Johanna, received the awful news that her husband died only days after the disaster. She would later relocate to Basel, where she would live until her own death in 1967. Adolf’s name is inscribed in a place of honor among the 36’000 war dead at the Tower Hill Memorial in London. The Swiss publication Bote der Urschweiz was the first to report that Elise may have been on the Lusitania in its May 12th issue. The March Anzeiger confirmed Elise’s death ten days later via a special dispatch sent from Liverpool to Bern. Elise’s letter from the United States reached her devastated family in Lachen soon thereafter. Elise’s remains – like those of Adolf and 800 other passengers – were neither found nor identified. Frederick was one of only 763 survivors. He traveled to Liverpool after the sinking and reunited with his overjoyed family. Frederick would later assist victims’ families by sharing his recollections of their lost loved ones in the years following the disaster. Loyal to Cunard for the rest of his life, Frederick served onboard the Aquitania, the Carmania, and the Scythia during the 1920s and 1930s in various capacities. He retired before the outbreak of World War II and died in Liverpool in 1967 at the age of 83.
Victims and survivors of the Lusitania in a French newspaper article, Le Miroir of 23 May, 1915.
Victims and survivors of the Lusitania in a French newspaper article, Le Miroir of 23 May, 1915. Wikimedia
Far too often, the Lusitania is reduced to a dark tale of conspiratorial intrigue or a judicial exercise in ascribing blame of her demise to Britain, the United States, or Germany. While the Lusitania disaster should still inspire pertinent discussions on the role of neutrality, culpability in the trade of munitions, and what constitutes a war crime, her rich and rewarding human stories are often ignored at our peril. The sinking of the Lusitania marks the conclusion of the Edwardian Age – it thus also highlights the dawn of a new era in which warfare became a deadlier prospect. The experiences of Adolf, Frederick, and Elise underscore the major societal changes in the West brought about by the second wave of the Industrial Revolution, social reform, and the First World War. Their lives direct us furthermore to the fascinating story of Swiss participation in late-Victorian and Edwardian British society – a history that ought to be explored and examined. On a more somber note, they shed light on many other Swiss stories yet to be told: Those of Swiss men, women, and children who found themselves trapped in conflicts, which were not of their own making and which were beyond their control.
The sinking of the Lusitania was used by the USA and Great Britain for recruitment propaganda. Poster from 1917.
The sinking of the Lusitania was used by the USA and Great Britain for recruitment propaganda. Poster from 1917. Library of Congress

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