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Sellheim, Victor Conradsdorf Morisset (1866–1928)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Victor Conradsdorf Morisset Sellheim (1866-1928), by unknown photographer

Victor Conradsdorf Morisset Sellheim (1866-1928), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H05751

Victor Conradsdorf Morisset Sellheim (1866-1928), soldier, was born on 12 May 1866 at Balmain, Sydney, eldest son of Philip Frederic Sellheim, grazier, and his wife Laura Theresa, daughter of Lieutnant-Colonel J. T. Morisset of the 48th Regiment. After Brisbane Grammar School, where he was captain of the school and of cricket and football and an all-round athlete, he was articled to a surveyor working at Charters Towers, on the Herbert River and at Mackay. Having qualified as a government licensed surveyor, he practised at Gympie and Charters Towers. On 7 December 1890 he married at Townsville Susan Henrietta, daughter of Rev. E. M. Howell-Griffith; they had no children.

While serving his articles Sellheim had enlisted in the Kennedy Regiment in which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1892 and became a captain in 1893. He obtained a permanent commission in the Queensland Defence Force in 1896 as adjutant of the Kennedy Regiment. In 1897 he became staff officer, Northern Military District, at Townsville. Sellheim underwent a series of courses at army schools in Britain in 1899. On the outbreak of war in South Africa he was one of a number of Australians attached to British units and headquarters and known as special service officers. Sellheim saw action, as temporary major, with British infantry battalions but later joined the Queensland Mounted Infantry for the advance to Pretoria. For a time he was staff officer under his friend Major (General Sir) Harry Chauvel. For his services in South Africa Sellheim was appointed C.B. and mentioned in dispatches.

On his return to Australia in December 1900 Sellheim resumed the round of staff appointments which was the lot of virtually all regular officers of his day. In 1906-07 he spent about a year on attachment in Britain at Aldershot and with the 4th Indian Division at Quetta. He was promoted substantive lieutenant-colonel in December 1909 and appointed quartermaster general, Australian Military Forces, in 1912. As a member of the Military Board he was now in a position where he might have some small influence on the army, then in the early stages of the compulsory training system. In 1913 he was promoted colonel; his appointment as adjutant general coincided with the outbreak of war in August 1914.

Sellheim joined the staff of the 1st Division, Australian Imperial Force, as assistant adjutant and quartermaster general or head of the administrative staff. He was an able and experienced staff officer, highly articulate and a good administrator. Unfortunately, he was handicapped by his presence: he was corpulent and had a stammer, and he quarrelled with his commander, Major General (Sir) William Bridges, soon after arriving in Egypt. The latter, deeply involved in training his division, was beset by the growing administrative problems of an expanding force. Bridges's solution was to set up an intermediate base to handle the administration of the A.I.F. in Egypt, but as an Australian section of the British base under General Sir John Maxwell. To organize and command it he sent Sellheim with only his batman and a clerk, but nothing more.

As a comparatively junior officer Colonel Sellheim was required to deal with British generals on behalf of a commander who had virtually abdicated from command of the A.I.F. A British general arrived to take over the training and discipline of Australian and New Zealand reinforcements and Bridges also allowed his medical arrangements for the A.I.F. to pass under British control. Fortunately for Sellheim, General Maxwell was well disposed and active; he, at least, was on Sellheim's side.

Sellheim gradually established a base for the A.I.F. with sections handling pay and finance, ordnance, records and base details (convalescents and reinforcements), but this was essentially part of the British base as Bridges had desired. Nor would Bridges deal with Sellheim except through Maxwell or Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood commanding the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Obsessed as he was with his role of divisional commander, Bridges thought so little of Sellheim's organization that he 'did not hesitate, on occasion, to foist on to it officers of whom he desired to disencumber himself'.

'Porky' Sellheim was bitterly disappointed at being relegated to the base when action was impending, despite Bridges's promise that he would be given the first available command of an infantry brigade. This did not eventuate and the rest of Sellheim's service in the A.I.F. was at the base in Cairo and later in London. The minister of defence in Melbourne Senator (Sir) George Pearce, having been persuaded by Lieutenant-Colonel T. H. Dodds, the adjutant general, to reorganize the base and give it a strong staff, in November 1915 superseded Sellheim by an officer who was his junior and without consulting Maxwell or Birdwood. Fortunately, that officer, Brigadier General G. G. H. Irving, and others acted to redress the wrong. (Sir) Robert Anderson, an outstanding businessman disguised as a colonel, told Pearce 'that injustice has unwittingly been done … Sellheim took hold of this thing when it was in absolute chaos … A great work has been done, and under most discouraging and disadvantageous circumstances'. Irving accepted the offer of a brigade, Sellheim became brigadier general on 1 February 1916 and resumed his command on 19 February.

However, his troubles were by no means over. After Birdwood left for France, the training of reinforcements, which had been brought under Australian control, was suddenly taken over in April by a British commander and staff by order of the commander-in-chief, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Sellheim protested immediately but obtained no redress other than some face-saving concessions. But Birdwood was able to have the base, including the training side, moved to England in May where it became Administrative Headquarters, A.I.F., under Sellheim, who also commanded Australian troops in Britain. So large and complex had the headquarters become and so numerous were the Australian camps, including those for the 3rd Division at Lark Hill, that the question of Sellheim's suitability emerged again, especially in view of the problems of dealing with the War Office. Prime Minister W. M. Hughes, who was in London, favoured the appointment of a businessman, so Anderson, who was totally unimpressed by British generals, was promoted and replaced Sellheim in August. The latter was sent home to become, once again, adjutant general. His path was eased by a mention in dispatches and a C.M.G.

Service in Australia in 1916-18 was a stiff test for any senior officer. Pearce wrote of the Military Board in 1917, 'we are now carrying on with our third and fourth “elevens”', and Sellheim agreed. Writing to Chauvel in 1918 he said, 'I am trying to dam back some of the crude ideas which sometimes threaten to leave their banks'. Yet things were little better when the war ended and the reaction against defence and its cost set in, boosted by talk of disarmament and the League of Nations. Cost-cutting extended to the Military Board so that Sellheim, who was promoted major general in January 1920, became quartermaster general (1922-24) as well as adjutant general; it may have saved £1000 a year.

Norfolk Island, where Sellheim's grandfather Lieutenant-Colonel Morisset had gone as commandant in 1829, needed a new administrator; the post must have compared more than favourably with the struggle of trying to maintain an army that was neither trained nor equipped to fight. Sellheim resigned in January 1927 and took up his new duties in February. The Sellheims quickly established themselves in the island community but their time was short. On 25 January 1928 Sellheim died of heart failure and was buried in the cemetery at Kingston with Anglican rites. His wife, who had organized the Friendly Union of Soldiers' Wives and Mothers in 1915, survived him. Sellheim's brother Lieutenant-Colonel Casimir Vaux served in the South African War and World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 2 (Syd, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • A. J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse (Melb, 1978)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Sydney Mail, 13 Jan, 14 Apr, 22 Dec 1900.

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Sellheim, Victor Conradsdorf Morisset (1866–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sellheim-victor-conradsdorf-morisset-8385/text14721, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Victor Conradsdorf Morisset Sellheim (1866-1928), by unknown photographer

Victor Conradsdorf Morisset Sellheim (1866-1928), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, H05751