Monday, May 4, 2015

Wally Schwabe – Astride Two Eras

by Greg Taylor, Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, writing from the Cunard Line's Lusitania Remembered Voyage.

How I imagine Wally
might have appeared
Walburga Schwabe does not exist outside the pages of Lusitania R.E.X. However, the four people on whom her character is based certainly did exist and their tales are remarkable in their own right. Wally, as she is known in the book, straddles the pre-and post-war periods. An American of German descent, she is well versed in how a young woman of the Edwardian era should behave. However, when Wally arrives for her studies in Potsdam after crossing on the Lusitania in 1911, she is looking for adventure. Wally is imbibed with the emerging spirit of a new age where women are assertive and sometimes downright reckless.

Though fictional, Wally is a composite of the following four real people.

Schoolmate of Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia. In May, 1913, the youngest child and only daughter of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was married in Berlin. She was the apple of her father’s eye and when Princess Viktoria Luise, known as Sissy, fell in love with Ernst, heir to the Hanoverian throne, it put her father in an awkward position.

Wedding photo of Sissy and Ernst
Sissy had fallen in love with the son of a King that was deposed by Prussian armies at the command of Otto von Bismarck, chancellor to Sissy’s great-grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I. Hanover was annexed to Prussia and the Guelph d’Este family, who had ruled Hanover for 800 years, went into exile in Austria. In a true Romeo and Juliet tale, the lovers from two families that had been enemies for sixty years, were at least given permission to marry.

The Tsar and George V at the wedding
The wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter at the Berlin Schloss, destroyed during World War Two but currently being rebuilt, was the pinnacle of pre-war aristocratic spectacle. It is the last time that the Kaiser, the Tsar and George V, all cousins, ever saw one another. The Kaiser wore a British Royal Dragoons uniform and the Russian Order of St. Andrew, thus paying respects to both his English and Russian relatives. King George V wore a Prussian Dragoons uniform and the Order of the Black Eagle.

Queen Mary wearing the Cullinan diamonds
The Kaiserin arrived on the arm of the groom’s father and wore her signature five strands of pearls, a diadem of diamonds and an emerald collar. She was eclipsed, however, when the Tsar, also wearing a German uniform, led Queen Mary of England to her seat wearing the George IV State Diadem, nine diamond necklaces and, suspended from the lowest two, massive diamonds of ninety-four and sixty-three carats cut from the famous Cullinan diamond.

The guests hailed from the noblest families of Europe but there was one surprising addition: an American school friend of the Princess. Despite her rank, Princess Sissy befriended a student from America and insisted that she receive an invitation to the imperial wedding. Perhaps the Princess found the modern views of her American schoolmate refreshing after the formalities and strict etiquette of the Prussian court. In Lusitania R.E.X, this lucky American girl is Wally Schwabe.

Paul Crompton family
Niece of Alfred Booth, Chairman of Cunard Lines. Alfred Booth forsook the family shipping business founded by his father and uncle to work for larger rival Cunard Lines, eventually becoming its chairman. The son of his cousin, Paul Crompton, was a partner in the family business, Alfred Booth & Company, and managed the company’s interests in Philadelphia. Paul sailed on the Lusitania on May 1st, 1915 with his wife Gladys (née Schwabe) and their six children and nanny. After being struck by a torpedo on the last day of the crossing, within sight of the Irish shore, the Lusitania sank in only eighteen minutes. The entire Crompton family perished along with the nanny.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Gladys has a younger sister, named Walburga, or Wally, who also embarks on the Lusitania on May 1st 1915. Wally happily benefits from brother-in-law Paul’s connection to Alfred Booth, even taking up Paul’s childhood name for Alfred Booth and calling him Uncle Rhed. Unlike her older sister, Wally is an adventuress and has ideas about helping end the war engulfing Europe that embroil her in intrigue and a mysterious cargo aboard the Lusitania.

Alfred Vanderbilt
Woman rescued by Alfred Vanderbilt. There are numerous accounts of Alfred Vanderbilt gathering children to put into the lifeboats during the final moments of the Lusitania sinking, assisted by his valet Denyer. It was also widely reported that he gave his lifebelt to a woman passenger, knowing that he could not swim. Alice Middleton is the Lusitania passenger to whom Alfred Vanderbilt gave his lifebelt.

In Lusitania R.E.X, it is Wally Schwabe that Alfred gives his lifebelt to so that she can be saved from drowning. In the novel, Alfred has also given something to Wally that she is dutifully carrying as the ship lists to thirty degrees and goes under at the bows. Wally knows that she must survive in order to deliver this bequest of Alfred that could change the outcome of World War One.

Woman shot from Lusitania Funnel. The Lusitania was built with longitudinal coal bunkers; an old navy design intended to protect machinery from shellfire. The Admiralty played a major role in her design since the Lusitania and her sister ship the Mauretania were built with government loans on condition they could be used as armed cruisers. The design may be effective against shells, but it is disastrous if a ship is struck below the waterline by a torpedo.

The funnels of the Lusitania
On May 7th, 1915, a single torpedo fired by the U20 struck the Lusitania. Captain Schwieger of the U20 was surprised when a second, much larger explosion, violently shook the ship. As the water rushed into the longitudinal coal bunkers, the Lusitania began to list at once to starboard in addition to going under at the bows. By the time water was rushing over the deck, the Lusitania was probably at an angle of more than thirty degrees, making it nearly impossible to launch the lifeboats. This severe list also meant that the four great funnels that towered over the liner were now looming over the passengers frantically thrashing about in the water.

Margaret Dwyer was one such passenger. When one of the massive funnels struck the water beside her, Margaret was pulled towards the yawning circle that was devouring the ocean. As the Lusitania slipped into the sea, water rushed to fill the tremendous void, dragging Margaret underwater and down the funnel toward the boiler room below. When the icy water hit the hot boilers, however, they ruptured; creating a massive cloud of steam that lifted Margaret and others out of the funnel and sent them tumbling into the water again. According to one account, Margaret lost all her clothes, and when she was pulled from the water and at last reunited with her husband, wearing only a blanket, he did not recognize her until she slapped him.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Wally gets sucked into the funnel above Boiler Room number three and dragged down in a torrent of rushing water. She is shot out again but her clothes and the item entrusted to her by Alfred Vanderbilt are gone.


Greg Taylor's passion for research has led him to develop first-hand relationships with the descendants of some of the characters in the book, including the Duke of Marlborough and Alfred G Vanderbilt III. He was drawn to the tale of Lusitania because he was fascinated by the cataclysm of elegant Edwardian society caused by the brutal warfare the industrial success of that society made possible. His passion for research and discovery has taken him to the numerous historical sites that appear in the book. Undergraduate studies in history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the University of Durham, England, are reflected in the book. Greg attended the School of Management at Yale University where he lives one block from The Tomb of Skull and Bones. London has been Greg's home since 2000 and he has divided his investment banking and asset management career between New York and London.



  1. I so enjoyed learning more of the background of the heroine in Lusitania R.E.X. It is a wonderful book. Readers will see why it is a finalist in the M.m.Bennetts' Award competition.

  2. Looks like a very interesting book.

  3. Very justifiable "merging." Since all these things actually happened, its not bending history by having them happen, and making them happen to one person makes for coherence in the story. Well done!


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