That day in 1917

For years, the notebook had rested in the deep drawer. It not only looked old, but also forgotten: a uniform layer of dust covered it, indicating no one had touched it for years, maybe decades. With a sense of respect and curiosity, I opened it randomly and read: “[…] common in those days, he could not hear us. When the bombs started falling, and with the sounds of shots everywhere, sometimes you would go temporarily deaf. Or perhaps he did not want to hear. By the end of 1917, we were all tired of the war and the rough conditions on the Western Front. If we only knew that the end was relatively close… for him, though, it was even closer.”*

The Western Front, 1917, in SL: the trenches
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: the trenches

The Western Front – 1917 – Training Camp 1, at Frideswide, is one of the most powerful experiences I have seen in Second Life. It was initially associated with The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, “an online repository of over 7000 items” based at the University of Oxford that consists of both primary material from poets of the time and image, audio and video files that include interviews with veterans from the Imperial War Museum, in the UK, and articles contributed by the general public. Rescued by Veritas Raymaker (Dr. Kenneth Y T Lim in the atomic world), who bought the sim when the University of Oxford left SL, The Western Front exhibition maintains its original content and its spirit, allowing us to have contact with items from the Digital Archive in context, i.e., in a simulated war trench that help us understand better what that material refers to. There are stills, videos and some impressive interviews with war veterans describing training in trench constructions, the risk posed by mustard gas, food issues and aspects related to injured soldiers, among other experiences.

The Western Front, 1917, in SL: "Destruction came from the skies"
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: “Destruction came from the skies”

The events of that day were described as if they had never stopped being lived. “Destruction came from the skies, the airplanes sound was terrifying. The dream of progress did not bring us welfare, it helped us kill each other in larger numbers. The horror was everywhere. Shell shock too, it was not uncommon at all – we were exhausted. I shouted once, he did not hear. I thought of shouting his name again, but the word never came out of my mouth. Then I saw him running towards the biggest uncertainty of all: no man’s land.”

The Western Front, 1917, in SL: "and he ran towards no man's land"
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: “and he ran towards no man’s land”

The experience at The Western Front in SL is richer if one dresses properly  and participates in its atmosphere – at the arrival point, the visitor finds free soldier and nurse uniforms. Right after reading a few texts on the war and the sim itself, one is ready to explore. From time to time, ghost soldiers will appear to share their experiences. Clickable devices delivering movies and sound files complete the sources we can rely on during the simulated exhibition.

The Western Front, 1917, in SL: one's ghosts always come back
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: one’s ghosts always come back
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: the casualty clearing station
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: the casualty clearing station
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: crawling
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: crawling
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: "Why can't we just stop?"
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: “Why can’t we just stop?”

The Western Front in SL is both a demonstration of how powerful a simulation like that can be at connecting the visitors with the material that is being exhibited and, at least for me, an experience that, evoking somberness and sorrow, refers to a kind of episode in history that should not be forgotten or repeated. For that reason, Frideswide, in SL since 2009, is definitely a sim to be visited and revisited, and it seems one can continue to spend time there whenever they want, for there is no apparent risk of Frideswide disappearing (following the fate of some other places that once were milestones in SL) in the near future, according to Veritas.

The Western Front, 1917, in SL: "I found him"
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: “I found him”
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: "The horror was everywhere"
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: “The horror was everywhere”

“I searched at the casualty clearing station with no success. I have not seen him again. There is only this dream now, this dream that haunts me: in such a fantasy, I find him alive and stay there until someone else arrives and helps me take him to the doctor. Then I wake up and realize he has never completed the crossing. I have not seen the body, but I know. Now the war is over. Will it ever end?”

The Western Front, 1917, in SL: "The war is over"
The Western Front, 1917, in SL: “The war is over”

*The excerpts in italic are purely fictional. They are inspired by ideas and feelings that The Western Front in SL evokes in me. I decided not to transcribe the original interviews that can be heard at the sim, since, on the one hand, they can be found on The First World War Poetry Digital Archive website and, on the other hand, they can be even more powerfully experienced at Frideswide. So, for those who have not heard them, I thought it was better not to preview them here.

6 thoughts on “That day in 1917

  1. Hi, I’ve only just found this post and I just wanted to express my thanks for your kind words and to again thank Veritas for his part in all this. Without his more than generous assistance The WW1 poetry sim would have disappeared irrevocably into the ether.

    I was the project lead and concept designer for this sim. I had a very short time to actually realize my ideas and had to work insane hours, way beyond what I was actually funded to do, to get it all done in the time available. Very many hugely talented content creators and trend setting residents gave freely of their time, talents, and resources. At Oxford I had the invaluable help of a couple of colleagues, an amazing archivist and a manager with a bit of vision.

    Sad to say that Oxford were happy enough to take to plaudits the sim garnered on opening and to include parts of Tara Yeats superb machinima Torn Fields in the freshers show-reel to shown how ‘bleeding edge’ they are, but that is as far as it went. There was a wall built of vague promises to ‘look for funding’, but absolutely no will to undertake any more work in this field.There was no budget for on-going support effort or even any grasp of the fact that such effort might be required.

    I did a lot of ad hoc tours for interested groups from all over the world and spoke at many to many a virtual class and conference, but only in my spare, non-work time. Don’t get me wrong, I was more than happy to do it and got a huge buzz from hearing people’s reactions to the experience and talking to fellow educators who ‘get it’. Oxford certainly don’t get it. Even when they decided to pull the plug pleading budget (one of the richest universities in the world yes?) and Veritas was making good on his long standing promise to come to the rescue (God bless that man!), my bean counting line managers wouldn’t allow me even an hour of work time to sort out the technicalities of doing a sim transfer and I had to it on my lunch break.

    Anyway, I can say all this now because, after another couple of years of beating my head against the desk in frustration at the lack of any support, I decided to quit my job there and launch out on my own into this very field. This has happened quite recently, but I have a few demos in the works, not in SL (I can’t afford the tier), but utilizing much of what I learned there, and I’m gaining some interest from some very useful contacts, but things are still rather at the pre-alpha stage.

    Thanks for the use of your comment section for my rant and please do come and look at my site and keep your eye on what I’m up to if you’re interested.


    Chris aka Csteph Submariner.

    1. Thank you very much, Chris/Csteph, the WW1 poetry sim is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in SL. And many thanks to Veritas as well, for keeping the sim out there!

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