Major General Victor Sellheim

12 May 1866 - 25 January 1928

AWM Negative Number: A03318 Caption:; Melbourne, Vic. 1919. Members of the Military Board.
Left to right: Back row, V. C. Duffy Esq (Secretary), Lieutenant Colonel H. W. Dangar (Acting Chief of Ordnance), T. Trumble Esq, (Secretary Department of Defence);
Front Row: Honourable G. Swinburne (Civil member), Brigadier General V. C. M. Sellheim (Adjutant General), Senator the Honourable E. J. Russell (Acting Minister),
Brigadier General J. K. Forsyth (Quartermaster General) and Brigadier General J. G. Legge (Chief of the General Staff).

Victor Conradsdorf Morisset Sellheim was born at Balmain, Sydney, on 12 May 1866, the son of a grazier. He was educated at Brisbane Grammar where he was captain of the football and cricket teams. He qualified as a surveyor working at Charters Towers, Mackay, and on the Herbert River.

Sellheim enlisted in the Kennedy Regiment, in which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1892, and was promoted to captain in 1893. In 1896 he joined the Queensland permanent forces as as adjutant of the Kennedy Regiment. In 1897 he became a staff officer at the Northern Military District at Townsville.

Sellheim was sent to England to attend training courses in 1899, where he was on the outbreak of war in South Africa. Attached to various British headquarters and infantry battalions, he saw service as a temporary major. He joined the Queensland Mounted Infantry for the advance on Pretoria, serving with Major H. G. Chauvel. For his services, Sellheim was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Companion of the Bath (CB).

Returning to Australia in December 1900, Sellheim resumed duty as a staff officer. He served in Britain again on attachment at Aldershot and then with the 4th Indian Division at Quetta, India. In December 1909 he was appointed Quartermaster General of the Australian Military Forces and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. As such he was a member of the Military Board, the governing body of the Army, and responsible for supply and transport. On 1 July 1913, Sellheim was promoted to full colonel and became Adjutant General, responsible for personnel matters, including pay and promotion.

An experienced and highly articulate administrator, Sellheim was appointed to the AIF on 15 August 1914 as Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General (AA&QMG) of the 1st Division. His first task was getting the AIF fully equipped and ready to sail. It was a daunting task, of a magnitude never seen before in Australia, and Sellheim performed superbly well. Through staff work of a high order, the AIF was raised, equipped and made ready to sail.

Soon after arriving in Egypt Sellheim quarrelled with his superior, Major General W. T. Bridges, who transferred him from his staff to take charge of the Australian Intermediate Base on 12 January 1915. This was the beginning of what would eventually become the great AIF Administrative Headquarters but all Bridges gave Sellheim to work with in the beginning was himself, his batman and one staff clerk, without even an office or furniture. Bridges was determined as much as possible to divorce himself from all the administrative side of his role of command of the AIF in order to concentrate on command of the 1st Division, which meant that the administrative tasks fell on Sellheim.

Sellheim organised the Intermediate Base into seven departments: records, finance, ordnance, medical, base details (reinforcements), remounts and postal. The base slowly came together, initially in the form of a section of an Australian section of Sir John Maxwell's British Base in Egypt, as Bridges intended. Sellheim was handicapped by being junior to his British counterparts, and by Bridges' lack of interest, but was able to get along quite well with Maxwell and gradually brought his talents to bear. Known in the Army as "Porky", Sellheim was somewhat overweight and had a stammer. He was greatly disappointed at being left behind in Egypt. Bridges had promised Sellheim the first available brigade command but this did not occur.

When complaints about the AIF training depot reached the ears of the Minister of Defence, Senator G. F. Pearce, in Melbourne, he immediately referred the matter to Sellheim, who pointed out that Pearce's British counterpart, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, had placed the depot outside of Sellheim's control, under the jurisdiction of a British officer, Major General J. Spens, over the objections of Sellheim but with the concurrence of Bridges. The Adjutant General, Major T. H. Dodds, a fierce advocate of the principle that Australian troops should be under the command of Australian officers, urged that the Intermediate Base be strengthened, with the addition of a strong staff, with general staff, quartermaster, adjutant general's and medical branch.

Therefore, in November 1915 Pearce overturned Bridges' concept of the base, informing the British Cabinet that the Commonwealth was taking charge of its own troops. He superseded Sellheim and sent Brigadier General G. G. H. Irving, an officer he regarded as more capable, determined and assertive than Sellheim, to take charge of the base. He also sent Colonel R. M. McC. Anderson as Deputy Quartermaster General and Colonel N. R. Howse as Director of Medical Services. Sellheim was to remain as Deputy Adjutant General. On surveying the situation in Cairo, Irving and Anderson felt that an injustice had been done and praised Sellheim's work to the minister. Accordingly, Irving was given command of an infantry brigade and Sellheim was promoted to brigadier general on 1 February 1916 and resumed command of the Intermediate Base on 19 February. By this time the command was a formidable one, involving responsibility for some 40,000 troops, mostly reinforcements in training.

The move of the GOC AIF, Lieutenant General Sir W. R. Birdwood, to France with I Anzac Corps occasioned an attempt by the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir W. R. Robertson, to take back control of the Intermediate Base. Birdwood and the High Commissioner in London, Andrew Fisher, met with the War Office and the upshot was an agreement to uproot the entire base and move it to England. The Intermediate Base was merged with the existing AIF headquarters in Horseferry Road, which by this stage already employed 177 AIF staff, to become the Australian Administrative Headquarters, with Sellheim as its first commandant. Sellheim and Anderson particularly agreed with and extended the existing practice of hiring women to do the clerical work at the headquarters.

So large and complex did the headquarters become that the question of Sellheim's suitability was again raised, with Pearce and Prime Minister W. M. Hughes favouring Sellheim's replacement with Anderson, who as a businessman was thought to be better qualified for the complex dealings with the War Office that were then on the cards. Thus, on 1 August 1916, Anderson was appointed Commandant, and Sellheim returned to Australia. For his services, he was mentioned in dispatches and made a Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG).

Sellheim spent the remainder of the war in Australia as Adjutant General, chiefly concerned with keeping up the flow of reinforcements to the AIF. He was promoted to major general in January 1920, and from 1922 to 1924 he also served as Quartermaster General, probably as a cost saving measure.

Sellheim resigned from the army in 1927 to take up the post of Administrator of Norfolk Island, where his grandfather had served as commandant in 1829. There, on 25 January 1928, Sellheim suffered a fatal heart attack. He was buried in Kensington Cemetery.

An able administrator, Sellheim did much to establish the administrative structure of the AIF.

Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 11, pp. 565-566; Bean, C. E. W., The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Volume I: The Story of Anzac, p. 119, Volume II: The Story of Anzac pp. 392-396, Volume III: The AIF In France 1916, pp. 145-156, 171-173

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Last update 8 June 2010