The Great Emu War Of 1932 (Yes, really)
An Emu. Source: (Photo by Reinhard Dirscherl\ullstein bild via Getty Images)
In 1932 the Australian Army was called to the wheat belt of Western Australia to do battle with a foe with literally inhuman intuition. The enemy was neither an invading army nor a militia of desperadoes looking to overthrow the Australian government. The adversary was Dromaius novaehollandiae, better known by its common name, the emu.
In the days during and after the First World War, Australian veterans returning home took advantage of a soldier settlement act that allocated land to the returning veterans. The idea was that the ex-soldiers could convert these lands into working farms. While throughout the program the government had been purchasing land throughout the country, by 1920 it was settling about 5,000 veterans in the more remote, arid Western Australia in the vicinity of Perth. Despite the marginal climate, these settlers managed to establish somewhat profitable wheat and sheep farms.
However, after the Great Depression struck in 1929, wheat prices plummeted. The new farms struggled even though the crops were good. The government for its part made unfulfilled promises of subsidies and urged the farmers to grow more wheat to make up the difference.
The final straw came in the form of an invading horde of 20,000 five-to-six-footish, gangly emus that were looking for water sources on their migratory route. They trampled and devoured crops, much to the dismay of the farmers. The farmers, who had tolerated the emus only so much before (in fact by the pressure they had Western Australia reclassified from endangered to vermin after World War I) now demanded action. They didn’t trust the Ministry of Agriculture, so the ex-soldiers naturally sought a military solution.
The problem was explained by one government official for the uninitiated, “... the use of rifles for the extinction of the birds was quite ineffective because only one or two birds could be shot before the remainder scattered far and wide. Ordinary fences such as keep out dingoes and kangaroos offer no obstacle to emus, for the birds take them in their stride, or knock them down, and thus let the rabbits into the crops.” Rabbits, of course, were a feral invasive species that was decimating the Australian landscape.
The veterans made a direct plea to the Australian Minister of Defence, John Sir George Pearce. Recalling their time in the trenches they suggested that if the army gave them machine guns, their emu problem could be solved permanently. Pearce to history’s astonishment agreed but with the caveat that the army would do the fighting for the farmers. Pearce reasoned that the large birds would provide good target practice and it may be good press for the government to show they were doing something for the struggling settlers. He dispatched Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery with a small detachment armed with Lewis guns (the same type used in the trenches during World War I) and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to Western Australia. They arrived on the scene on November 2, 1932.
They were ready for the emus. Or at least thought they were.
Major Meredith’s party first encountered a group of 50 emus in the area of Campion. Creeping up in formation behind the mob, they opened fire. The emus, however, scattered and vanished. Much like Wile E. Coyote always needed a new plan to get the Road Runner, Major Meredith needed to change tactics.
On November 4 the army set up an ambush by a pool. About 1,000 emus had gathered to drink. Then in a blast, the soldiers opened fire. But the gun jammed and the emus again vanished. This time they had managed to kill a dozen of the enemy.
By November 8, the government recalled Major Meredith partially out of embarrassment and partially over arguing who would pay for the ammunition. Meredith was quoted as saying, “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world ... They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.”
It was embarrassing. A politician commented that medals should be struck for the emus since the birds “have won every round so far.”
The Second Engagement
There was to be no truce, however. The emus renewed their attacks on the farms with vigor. Due to continual demands from the settlers and the support of the Premier of Western Australia, and due to some overinflated numbers of emus killed in action to salve the PR-nightmare, the army returned again on November 12. This time they mounted machine guns on trucks to pursue the birds.
It didn’t work. The soldiers couldn’t hold the guns steady enough in the moving trucks to take proper aim. The soldiers tried to “herd” the birds toward the machine guns, but they could only manage to get a few. The emus were obviously masters of guerrilla warfare.
By the end of a month of campaigning on December 10, 1932, the army to its credit scored a tally of 986 kills with the use of a total of 9,860 rounds of ammunition.
It was a farcical affair that led to a fair amount of mockery in Australian politics. Sir George Pearce was dubbed the Minister of the Emu War. Abroad, there were concerns raised that the Australians were trying to exterminate a unique native species.
As for the emus, they continued to maraud farmlands for decades. The military refused any assistance to the settlers when they asked again in 1934, 1943, and 1948. Instead, a bounty system was used that seemed to alleviate the problem in concert with better fencing systems. In 1934, some 57,034 emus were killed by locals for bounties.
Fortunately, the emu was restored to protected status under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999.
Today there are probably over 700,00 emus flourishing in Australia though it is unknown if they have a holiday to celebrate their triumph.
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