Home > Uncategorized > Karel Čapek: The War with the Newts

Karel Čapek: The War with the Newts

Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Karel Čapek
From The War with the Newts (1936)
Translated by David Wyllie

The Jules Flambeau dropped anchor a mile and a half from the bay of Basse Coutances; when night came, in order to create a stronger impression, the captain order coloured rockets to be set off. This beautiful spectacle was watched by a large number of people on the shore; suddenly there was a hissing noise and an enormous column of water rose at the bow of the ship; it keeled over and there was a terrible explosion.

It was clear that the cruiser was sinking; within a quarter of an hour motor boats had come out from the nearby ports to offer help but they were not needed; apart from three men killed in the explosion itself the whole crew was saved and the Jules Flambeau went down five minutes later, its captain being the last to leave the ship with the memorable words, “There’s nothing we can do”.

The official report, issued that same night, announced that the “ageing cruiser, the Jules Flambeau, which was anyway to be withdrawn from service within a few weeks from now, hit rocks while sailing by night and, with its boiler exploding, sank”, but the press were not so easily satisfied; while the government influenced press maintained that the ship had hit a recently laid German mine, the opposition and foreign press carried headlines such as:

FRENCH CRUISER TORPEDOED by newts!

MYSTERIOUS EVENTS off the coast of Normandy

NEWTS IN REVOLT!

“We call to account,” wrote one French member of parliament in his paper, “those who gave arms to the newts that they could use against people; who put bombs in their paws so that they could kill French villagers and children as they play; who gave these monstrosities from the sea the most modern torpedoes so that they could sink French shipping whenever they want. Let us call them to account, I say: let them be indicted for murder, let them be dragged before a military tribunal for treason, let them be investigated for us to learn how much they profited from supplying the rabble of the oceans with the weapons to attack civilisation!”

And so on; there was simply a general consternation, people gathered on the streets and began to build barricades; Senegalese riflemen, their guns stacked in pyramids, were stationed on the boulevards of Paris, and waiting in the suburbs were tanks and armoured cars.

This was when the minister for marine affairs, Monsieur François Ponceau, stood in parliament, pale but decisive, and declared: The government accepts the responsibility for having equipped newts on French territory with guns, underwater machine guns, and torpedoes. French newts, however, are equipped only with light, small calibre cannons; German salamanders are armed with 32cm. underwater mortars. On French coasts there is only one underwater arsenal of hand grenades, torpedoes and explosives every twenty-four kilometres on average, on Italian coasts there are deep-water depots of armaments every twenty kilometres and in German waters every eighteen kilometres. France cannot leave her shores unprotected and will not do so. It is not possible for France to simply stop arming her newts. The minister would issue instructions for the most thorough investigations possible to discover who is guilty for the fatal misunderstanding on the Normandy coast; it seems that the newts saw the coloured rockets as a signal for military action and wished to defend themselves.

*****

The newspapers, according to their political colour, urged punishment, eradication, colonisation or a crusade against the newts, a general strike, resignation of the government, the arrest of newt owners, the arrest of communist leaders and agitators and many other protective measures of this sort. People began frantically to stockpile food when rumours of the shores and ports being closed off began to spread, and the prices of goods of every sort soared; riots caused by rising prices broke out in the industrial cities; the stock exchange was closed for three days.

*****

All this time the sea was thundering and boiling, almost as if military manoeuvres had been taking place under the water; but apart from the erupting water and steam there was nothing to see.

From both Dover and Calais, destroyers and torpedo boats set out at full steam and squadrons of military aircraft flew to the site of the disturbance; but by the time they got there all they found was that the surface was discoloured with something like a yellow mud and covered with startled fish and newts that had been torn to pieces.

At first it was thought that a mine in the channel must have exploded; but once the shores on both sides of the Straits of Dover had been ringed off with a chain of soldiers and the English prime-minister had, for the fourth time in the history of the world, interrupted his Saturday evening and hurried back to London, there were those who thought the incident must be of extremely serious international importance.

The papers carried some highly alarming rumours, but, oddly enough, this time remained far from the truth; nobody had any idea that Europe, and the whole world with it, stood for a few days on the brink of a major war. It was only several years later that a member of the then British cabinet, Sir Thomas Mulberry, failed to be re-elected in a general election and published his memoirs setting out just what had actually happened; but by then, though, nobody was interested.

This, in short, is what happened: Both England and France had begun constructing underwater fortresses for the newts in the English Channel. By means of these fortresses it would have been possible, in case of war, to close it off to shipping entirely.

Then, of course, both great powers accused the other of having started it first; but in all probability both sides began fortification at the same time in the fear that the friendly neighbour across the channel might get there before they did.

In short, two enormous concrete fortresses armed with heavy cannons, torpedoes, extensive minefields and all that modern weapon technology could give them, had been growing steadily under the surface of the Straits of Dover; on the English side this terrible fortress of the deep was operated by two divisions of heavy newts and around thirty thousand working salamanders, on the French side there were three divisions of first class warrior newts. It seems that on the critical day, a working colony of British newts came across French salamanders on the seabed in the middle of the strait and some kind of misunderstanding developed.

The French insisted that their newts had been working peacefully when they were attacked by the British who wanted to repel them, that British armed newts had tried to abduct some French newts who, of course, had defended themselves. At this, British military salamanders began firing into French labouring newts with hand grenades and mortars so that the French newts were forced to use similar weapons. The government of France felt compelled to require full satisfaction from His Britannic Majesty’s government and complete withdrawal from the disputed area of the seabed in order to ensure that no similar incident would occur again in the future.

*****

At this the French government declared that it could no longer tolerate having a neighbouring state building underwater fortifications in immediate proximity to the French coast. As far as a misunderstanding on the bed of the English Channel was concerned the republic suggested that, in accordance with the London Convention, the dispute be presented to the international court in The Hague. The British government replied that it could not and would not subject the security of British coasts to decisions made by any external body. As victims of the French attack they once again required, and with all possible emphasis, an apology, payment for damages and a guarantee for the future. British shipping stationed at Malta steamed westward at full speed; the Atlantic fleet was given orders to assemble at Portsmouth and Yarmouth.

The French government ordered the mobilisation of its naval reserve.

It now seemed that neither side could give way; it clearly meant after all nothing less than mastery over the entire channel. At this critical moment Sir Thomas Mulberry discovered the surprising fact that there actually were no working newts or military newts operating on the English side, or at least not officially, as the British Isles were still bound by Sir Samuel Mandeville’s prohibition on any salamander working on British coasts or surface waters.

This meant that the British government could not officially maintain that French newts had attacked any English newts; the whole issue therefore was reduced to the question whether French newts, deliberately or in error, had crossed over into British sovereign waters. French officials promised that they would investigate the matter; the English government never even suggested that the matter should be presented to the international court in The Hague. Finally the British admiralty came to an agreement with the French admiralty that there would be a five kilometre wide neutral zone between underwater fortifications in the English Channel, and in this way the exceptional friendliness existing between the two states was confirmed.

*****

Not many years after the first newt colonies had been settled in the North Sea and the Baltic a German scientist, Dr. Hans Thüring, found that the Baltic newt had certain distinctive physical features – clearly as a result of its environment; that it was somewhat lighter in colour, it walked on two legs, and its cranial index indicated a skull that was longer and narrower than other newts. This variety was given the name Northern Newt or Noble Newt (Andrias Scheuchzeri var. nobilis erecta Thüring).

The German press took this Baltic newt as its own, and enthusiastically stressed that it was because of its German environment that this newt had developed into a different and superior sub-species, indisputably above the level of any other salamander. Journalists wrote with contempt of the degenerate newts of the Mediterranean, stunted both physically and mentally, of the savage newts of the tropics and of the inferior, barbaric and bestial newts of other nations. The slogan of the day was From the Great Newt to the German Übernewt.

*****

Movements to oppose the newts spread to almost every country in the world and a variety of organisations such as The Association for the Elimination of the Newts, The Anti-Salamander Club, The Committee for Human Protection were established everywhere. Newt delegates at the thirteenth session of the Commission for the Study of Newt Affairs in Geneva were insulted when they tried to take part. The boards that fenced off the coastline were daubed with threatening graffiti such as Death to the Newts, Salamanders Go Home etc. Many newts had stones thrown at them; no salamander now dared to raise his head above water in daylight.

*****

It was an odd sort of war, if indeed it could be called a war at all; as there was no newt state nor any acknowledged newt government which could be officially held responsible for the hostilities. The first country to find itself in a state of war with the salamanders was Great Britain. Within the first few hours the newts had sunk almost all British ships at anchor in harbour; there was nothing that they could have done about that.

Within six weeks the United Kingdom had lost four fifths of its total tonnage. John Bull was given another moment in history to display his famous doggedness. His Majesty’s Government refused to negotiate with the newts and did not call off its ban on giving them any supplies. “An Englishman,” declared the prime minister on behalf of the entire nation, “will protect animals but will not haggle with them.”

*****

Some weeks later, the nations of the world met together in Vaduz.

The conference took place in Vaduz because in the height of the Alps there was no danger from the newts and because most of the world’s most powerful and socially important people had already fled there from coastal areas. It was generally agreed that the conference progressed quickly to reach solutions to all the worlds’ current problems. Every country (with the exceptions of Switzerland, Afghanistan, Bolivia and some other land-locked countries) agreed emphatically not to recognise the newts as an independent military power, mainly because they would then have to acknowledge their own newts as members of a salamander state; it was even possible that a salamander state of this sort would want to exercise its sovereignty over all the shores and waters occupied by newts.

*****

There’s a new legend about a Great Flood sent by God to punish man for his sins. And there will be new legends about lands that disappeared under the water, and these lands will have been the cradle of human civilisation; and there will myths and legends about places like England and France and Germany…

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. rosemerry
    July 4, 2011 at 7:11 am

    A great article to get us thinking about the irrationality of human warfare.

    • richardrozoff
      July 4, 2011 at 11:04 am

      Čapek was farsighted enough, 75 years ago, to have left us a template: For newts substitute who you will.
      He was also the author of the 1921 drama R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the first time the word robot (from the Slavic word for worker) was used for a “mechanical man.”
      The Czech version of the play used the English words Rossum’s Universal Robots as its title, perhaps aptly enough.

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