The role of Whipps Cross Hospital in treating thousands of soldiers returning from the front during the First World War will be the focus of a new exhibition. Barnaby Davis explains how the scale of the casualties was initially, drastically under-estimated. 

Before the First World War, Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone was known as the West Ham Union Infirmary, an overcrowded institution formed by the West Ham Board of Guardians, stewards of the West Ham Poor Law. 

A total of approximately 2.5 million wounded soldiers from across the Commonwealth returned to Britain during and after the conflict, placing an unprecedented and extreme strain on services. 

In June 1915, the West Ham Guardians had offered free use of the Forest House Annexe to the War Office for "our brave lads wounded at the front". 

This was initially rejected by the War Office, which did not anticipate the scale of casualties. 

But as the situation became desperate in 1917, the decision was reconsidered. 

The office sent an inspector to the hospital, who was said to be impressed by its "complete and modern equipment". 

An entire infirmary block was requested to deal with rising demand at the newly designated war hospital. 

Later four wards were added, with 340 beds treating some 6,000 military wounded between 1917 and 1918. 

This is similar to the number of operations held on a yearly basis at the hospital today. 

On Saturday 17 November 1917, the Royal Family paid an official visit to the infirmary at Whipps Cross to mark its new status as a war hospital. 

Local dignitaries and MP’s attended and the Aldersbrook brass band played to welcome King George V, Queen Mary and the Princess Royal, Princess Mary. 

According to newspaper reports, soldiers from Australia criticised the cold weather in the UK to the King. 

One who had been gassed complained that he could no longer smoke. The King responded by saying it was a terrible hardship, adding he hoped the soldier would "be able to have a whiff soon". 

Another serviceman suffering from a bayonet wound was asked by the King if he had managed to do any bayoneting in return. The stricken soldier answered "some" to laughter. 

A choir of local nurses, who were graduating from the hospital's training school, sang to the Queen, who handed out medals in a practice still observed today. 

An original ward at the hospital 

The royal visit in 1917 coincided with a significant change for the infirmary as its name was changed to Whipps Cross War Hospital. 

An official note followed from Lord Standfordham at Buckingham Palace. 

He wrote: “I am commanded to assure you that the King and Queen were greatly interested in their visit to Whipps Cross Hospital this afternoon.” 

This was the first official reference to the new name. 

The following summer on June 1 1918, a military fund in aid of a recreation hut was arranged by the wounded soldiers in the grounds of the hospital. 

It was marked by a football match kicked off by a small girl, with footage available on Youtube. 

However, the end of the hospital as a specialist war hospital in 1919 caused a stir for the many disabled veterans in West Ham, who then had no hospital assigned for the continuous treatment of their war wounds. 

Phil Hughes, president of Whipps Cross Radio station, said the hospital became a significant resource for the army after they initially rejected the use of the site. 

He said: “Nobody anticipated the scale of death and injury of the war. 

“I think the War Office were a pompous bunch who thought they could deal with the problem but when it became so huge they swallowed their pride and took whatever help they could get. 

“The importance was probably not so much on the war effort, rather on the impact the war had on the hospital itself. 

“The war changed the perception from a poor law infirmary to a war hospital and later to the general hospital we see today." 

The War Hospital: Whipps Cross & the First World War Exhibition organised by the Eastside Community Heritage and National Lottery opens at Walthamstow Central Library on May 2.