Nobody has asked me about results from my latest entry in this stupid competition. I appreciate the kindness. But a sense of honesty forces me to accurately report the facts. In a field of around 3500 contestants I placed equal last. If you are locked up in some Covid cave somewhere that there is no television reception and you are so utterly bored that you could read literally anything then you can do so here.
The thing about this particular flash fiction competition everyone gets a go at the second round even if qualifying for round 3 is near enough to a statistical impossibility. My 2nd round entry was half-hearted at best, but I did it as a sporting gesture and as a means of disguising my shame, embarrassment and bitterness. The fact that I was assigned ‘historical fiction’ only made matters worse.
As I mentioned somewhere else, my friend Meg is currently placed equal first in the same competition. I call her my friend but secretly, of course, I despise her. How dare she?
But here’s the interesting part. During WW1 German soldiers really did take possession of a French strategic stronghold virtually unopposed only to later blow themselves to smithereens heating coffee with flamethrower fuel. My story strays a little from the truth. Or perhaps it just fills in the gaps. I don’t know.
But what I do know is that I can be confident of finishing the competition this year with my last placing firmly secured.
The Retaking of Fort Douaumont
Fort Douaumont was taken in February 1916 by little more than a dozen German soldiers and an angry Dachshund. It was no big deal, in other words. Unfortunately, in early May, when President Poincare came marching through our little encampment at the bottom of the hill and pointed up at it, mumbling something about ‘national pride’, everything changed. Suddenly it was a big deal.
Then a foot soldier of the Second Army, I had been stationed, for about ten weeks, attempting to look menacingly from the bottom of the hill up towards the fort, as the Germans stared back down at us from their position of clear superiority within its walls. After lunch each Wednesday we would formally point our guns in their direction and fire a few token shots. In response they would lob shells back over our heads and blow great holes in unoccupied bits of the city behind us, until we stopped. This arrangement worked very well. Nobody got hurt, we played cards and smoked cigarettes during the day and at night got drunk with local prostitutes who were ostentatiously grateful to have us there as a last line of defence. The truth, of course, was that we planned to withdraw rapidly through the city and continue west at any sign of German advancement.
And then the president started blubbering on about national pride.
Our military leaders were obliged to act. A few days after the President’s visit, I was walking past the officer’s tent and distinctly heard General Nivelle utter the words ‘suicide mission’, closely followed by ‘tonight’.
Returning hurriedly to our own humble canvas accommodation I found Couture sitting on his bunk, as usual, smoking something from his pipe.
“Drop that,” I ordered him, “we’ve got problems. These lunatics have decided that they want to get us killed, after all.” He looked at me quizzically, “A suicide mission,” I added, for impact.
“Sounds bad. For us?”
“Well, they won’t be wasting anyone valuable, that’s for sure, so I’m about to accidentally fall off the city bridge and break some bones, rendering myself unfit for duty. Coming?”
“Might as well.”
We were rushing back past the officer’s tent when Nivelle suddenly thrust himself out into the sun and called to us. “You men,” he asked, “where are you going?”
“Sick bay, Sir,” I said
“That’s in the other direction.”
“Going the long way, Sir. For exercise.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
I paused for a moment, trying to think of some diabolical, symptomless disease.
Couture intervened. “Broken legs, Sir,” he offered, and theatrically collapsed.
An awkward silence followed before Nivelle grinned. “Ha! Very funny. Give me your names. I admire men who can laugh when there is death in the breeze! A sure sign of courage!”
But we weren’t laughing.
“Durand, Sir,” I told him.
“Couture,” said Couture, sheepishly regaining his feet.
Nivelle placed his big arms over each of our shoulders as if we were his offspring. “Durand and Couture,” he repeated, “never heard of you. Good. I have a special mission.”
This was the plan.
We were to creep up the hill in the dead of night, surreptitiously trailing a detonating cord behind us, until we located the explosives storage room to the left of the fort’s main entrance. We would use scissors to cut the cord to the correct length, splice it and attach it to the detonation device before putting that in whichever box looked likely to create the biggest bang. The generals would initiate the explosion from the safety of their tent when we returned.
“What do you think of our chances, Sir?”
“About one in a million. Roughly. Your sacrifice will be noted, however, perhaps with a medal, and the next team will take over from wherever you fall.”
“A medal, eh?” said Couture, as we set out that night, “my mother will be thrilled.”
We made it to the top undetected, as it happened. On a Saturday night the Germans weren’t expecting anything, most of them probably drunk. They had committed a classic military error. Underestimating enemy stupidity.
When we entered the munitions room there was a dim light in one corner. There sat a German soldier, no more than seventeen years old, heating coffee over a small cooking fire. He blinked up at us, recognised our uniforms, and quickly extinguished the fire before vanishing into the darkness. “Stop him,” I hissed to Couture, “grab him. Stab him with the scissors!”
There was a scuffle.
“I’ve got him. I’ve got his leg!”
“That’s my leg, you idiot. Put down those scissors!”
We never saw the boy again. The detonator, cable, and scissors we dropped somewhere, before stumbling back out into the moonlight to race down the hill. In our mad panic we tripped within the first twenty metres and fell, rolling and sliding the rest of the way to safety. We heard drunken German laughter behind us and a few half-hearted gunshots.
Arriving back in camp we were convincingly puffed, bruised, bloodied, and battered.
“It was hell up there,” I explained to the assembled officers, “armed Germans everywhere. I managed to slaughter seven of them with the scissors and Couture beat two of them to death with his helmet, but eventually we had to retreat. It’s a miracle we survived!”
General Nivelle patted me admiringly on the back and was, no doubt, about to ask about the detonator setup, when, fortuitously, there was a deafening explosion from the top of the hill, and we were showered with dust.
Apparently, the young German’s cooking fire had not been totally extinguished. History records that this unattended fire, in turn, detonated grenades and flamethrower fuel, setting off a firestorm within the fort, killing 679 soldiers. In the ensuing confusion many of the injured – burned, blackened, and unrecognisable, were mistaken for an advancing invasion force and fired upon by their own comrades.
Thus, national pride was restored.
The vital contribution of myself and Couture appears nowhere, however, in official documentation.