VR transports WW2 veteran to French town he helped liberate

Ninety-one-year-old Chelsea Pensioner Frank Mouqué helped to liberate a number of northern French towns during World War II. Now, with the help of a VR headset, he has been able to virtually revisit one of these – the town of Armentières, close to the Belgian border in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Ahead of this year’s Remembrance Day, Manchester-based startup Twine has partnered with Royal Hospital Chelsea to create a 360-degree tour of Armentières for Frank Mouqué. This includes conversations with elderly residents who can remember life under occupation, a group of schoolchildren singing a local nursery rhyme, and a presentation of the town’s medal by Armentières’ mayor.

The clip of Mouqué shows him being impressed by the VR video, noting that it felt like he was in the room with the singing children and the town’s mayor. This sense of bodily presence, often held up as one of the fundamental instruments in the toolbox of virtual reality, brings with it a number of questions about VR’s capacity to trigger memories of specific places.

Does being immersed in modern-day Armentières feel different from seeing it on a flat screen? Could, or indeed should, VR be used to help veterans revisit past sites of combat? The focus of Twine’s video is clearly on enabling residents of the town to express thanks to Mouqué and other Allied soldiers, but it isn’t the only VR project that aims to trigger memories in soldiers. Virtual-reality exposure therapy, for example, uses virtual stimuli to immerse soldiers of recent wars in environments that may be associated with trauma.

There’s also the aspect of remembrance. The VR experience is designed for Mouqué, with the people in the video addressing him directly. When Mouqué and his generation are gone, would it be beneficial for other people to put on the headset and see the same thing? Would a VR experience that goes further; one that shows Mouqué’s original experience in Armentières, be a beneficial tool for education, or does it run the risk of reducing the experiences of dead soldiers – perhaps even treating them as immersive entertainment?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Twine’s VR video is a touching way for a veteran to connect with people living in a town that, one must imagine, holds a special place in his memory. The medal physically given to him, after he has been given it virtually, is a neat reminder that, in spite of the VR visit, there is a very solid and very real history behind the connection between Frank Mouqué and the town of Armentières.   

“For Frank, to be thanked by the people of Armentières for his contribution during the war, and to receive this medal from the mayor, means a tremendous amount,” comments colonel Simon Bate OBE, adjutant of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. “He will have been thinking of the other soldiers who fought alongside him as he received the medal on both his – and their – behalf. It will mean a lot to him. We need to make sure that the sacrifices of those lost in war are never forgotten.”

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