The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 3

Incident in the English Channel

Not long afterwards, a Belgian ferry, the Oudenbourg, was steaming its way from Ostende to Ramsgate. In the straits of Dover the duty officer noticed that half a mile south of its usual course there was something going on in the water. He could not be sure that there was no-one drowning there and so he ordered a change of course down to where the perturbance was taking place. Two hundred passengers on the windward side of the ship were shown a very strange spectacle: in some places a vertical jet of water shot out from the surface, and in some of those vertical jets there could be seen something like a black body thrown up with it; the surface of the sea for one or two hundred yards all around was tossing and seething wildly while, from the depths, a loud rattling and humming could be heard. “It was as if there was a small volcano erupting under the sea.” As the Oudenbourg slowly approached the place an enormous wave rose about ten yards ahead of it and a terrible noise thundered out like an explosion. The entire ship was lifted violently and the deck was showered with a rain of water that was nearly boiling hot; and landing on the deck with the water was a strong black body which writhed and let out a sharp loud scream; it was a newt that had been injured and burnt. The captain ordered the ship full steam astern so that the ship would not steam straight into the middle of this turbulent Hell; but the water all around had also begun to erupt and the surface of the sea was strewn with pieces of dismembered newts. The ship was finally able to turn around and it fled northwards as fast as possible.  Then there was a terrible explosion about six hundred yards to the stern and a gigantic column of water and steam, perhaps a hundred yards high, shot out of the sea. The Oudenbourg set course for Harwich and sent out a radio warning in all directions: “Attention all shipping, attention all shipping! Severe danger on Ostende-Ramsgate lane. Underwater explosion. Cause unknown. All shipping advised avoid area!” 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.

On the other hand, the British government sent a special note to the government of the French Republic informing them that French militarised newts had entered the English half of the channel and were about to lay down mines there. The British newts pointed out that they were in their working area; at which the French salamanders, armed to the teeth, responded by throwing hand grenades which killed several working newts on the British side. It was with regret that His Majesty’s Government felt obliged to require full satisfaction from the government of the French Republic and the assurance that French military newts would never again enter the British side of the English Channel.

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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52