The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 2

Skirmish in Normandy

A conflict that took place in Normandy somewhat later had a quite different character. The newts there, most of whom worked in Cherbourg and lived on the surrounding beaches, had become very fond of apples. Their employers, though, were unwilling to provide them with anything but the usual newt food (they said it would raise construction costs above the projected budget) and so the newts began to undertake scrumping raids in the nearby orchards. The land owners complained about it to the prefecture and the newts were strictly forbidden to go anywhere on the beach outside the designated newt area, but this was of no help; the orchards continued to suffer steady losses, eggs seemed to disappear from the chicken coops, and every morning more and more guard dogs were found dead. So the villagers began to guard their orchards themselves, armed with ancient shotguns, and shot the poaching newts. It would have remained just a local matter; but the people of Normandy were also annoyed that their taxes had been raised and the price of ammunition had gone up, so they developed a deadly malice towards the newts and undertook raids against them in heavily armed gangs. When they had shot a large number of newts even while they were at work, the newt’s employers complained to the prefecture and the prefect ordered that the villagers should have their rusty old guns taken away. The villagers of course resisted, and there were unpleasant conflicts between them and the gendarmes; the stubborn Normans were no longer just shooting at the newts but also, now, at the police. Reinforcements were sent out to Normandy and carried out a house to house search.

It was just about at this time that there was a very unpleasant incident near Coutances: a group of local lads attacked a newt who, they claimed, had been acting suspiciously near a hen coop. They surrounded him with his back against the wall of a barn and began to throw bricks at him. The injured salamander raised his hand and threw down something that looked like an egg; there was an explosion which ripped not only the newt to pieces but also three of the lads: eleven year old Pierre Cajus, sixteen year old Marcel Bérard and fifteen year old Louis Kermadec; and there were also five other children seriously injured to varying degrees. The news quickly spread throughout the region; about seven hundred people came in buses from all around and attacked the newt colony in the bay of Basse Coutances, armed with shotguns, pitchforks and flails. Around twenty newts were killed before the police were able to subdue the angry crowd. Sappers called in from Cherbourg surrounded the bay with barbed wire; but that night the salamanders came out of the sea, destroyed the barbed wire fences with hand grenades and tried to make their way inland. Several companies of soldiers with machine guns were quickly brought in on lorries and a chain of troops was used to try and keep the newts separate from people. Meanwhile, the people were attacking the finance offices and police stations and one unpopular tax inspector was hanged on a lamppost with a placard saying: Away with the Newts! The newspapers, especially those in Germany, talked about a revolution in Normandy; although the government in Paris issued vehement denials.

While the bloody skirmishes between people and newts spread along the coast of Calvados into Picardy and Pas de Calais, the ageing French cruiser, Jules Flambeau, sailed out of Cherbourg towards the western coast of Normandy; it was later found that the cruiser was only intended to calm and reassure the local inhabitants and the newts. 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 captain of the Jules Flambeau and the prefect of Cherbourg were both removed from their positions; a special commission was set up to ascertain how businesses involved in water works treated their newts with the expectation that that they would come under strict supervision in future. The government deeply regretted the loss of human lives; Pierre Cajus, Marcel Bérard and Louis Kermadec would be decorated as national heroes, buried at government expense and their parents rewarded with a large sum of money. Substantial changes were made at the highest level to the way French shipping was managed. The government put a motion of no-confidence in the National Assembly, to be settled when more information was available, and the cabinet announced that it would remain in permanent session.

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. It was simply the more worrying and dangerous than it had been at any time over the previous three or four months. But this was when the minister for agriculture, Monsieur Monti, stepped dexterously in. He gave orders that several hundred loads of apples for the newts should be discharged into the sea twice a week along the French coasts, at government cost, of course. This measure was remarkably successful in pacifying both the newts and the villagers in Normandy and elsewhere. But Monsieur Monti went even further: there had long been deep and serious disturbances in the wine-growing regions, resulting from a lack of turnover, so he ordered that the state should provide each newt with a half litre of white wine per day. At first the newts did not know what to do with this wine because it caused them serious diarrhoea and they poured it into the sea; but with a little time they clearly became used to it, and it was noticed that from then on the newts would show a lot more enthusiasm for sex, although with lower fertility rates than before. In this way, problems to do with the newts and with agriculture were solved in one stroke; fear and tension were assuaged, and, in short, the next time there was another government crisis, caused by the financial scandal around Madame Töppler, the clever and well proven Monsieur Monti became the minister for marine affairs in the new cabinet.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34