There have been many huge and catastrophic wars in the 20th century of world history, but few have heard of the Emu war of 1932. Australia’s military somehow fought against, and suffered an embarrassing defeat to, flightless birds.
in what has become known as the Great Emu war and was a nuisance wildlife management operation to address the public concern of emus running amok in Western Australia. The emu population did suffer due to the war, but ultimately continued to cause crop destruction.
How did Australia find itself in a war with a bird and, more bizarrely, how did they lose?
Following the conclusion of World War I in 1918, many discharged veterans found themselves given land by the Australian government to take up farming within Western Australia. The land was often in agriculturally marginal areas, but with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 many veteran soldier farmers focused on increasing their wheat crops.
The government promised subsidies to assist the new farmers, though it failed to deliver any form of assistance. Wheat prices continued to fall, and the farmers threatened to not deliver the wheat if they were not paid properly.
Their troubles were furthered by the annual arrival of up to 20,000 emus. The new farmland in Western Australia was very suitable for emus, who migrate after breeding season ends. They arrived in huge numbers, consuming and spoiling the crops. They also damaged the fences around them allowing other wildlife to enter.
Farmers were quick to relay their concerns to the Minister of Defence, George Pearce, who agreed with their plan to use machine guns against the emus. He did attach conditions to this agreement though.
The guns were only to be used by military personnel, troop transport was to be paid for by the government and the farmers would pay for food, accommodation, and ammunition for the soldiers. This plan would provide the soldiers with good target practice and solve the farming problem, all in one.
War is Declared
Military involvement began in the latter part of 1932. The operation was delayed until the 2nd of November due to heavy rainfall that scattered the emus to the local wider area.
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The Australian forces were under the command of Major Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery. Equipped with two Lewis machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition, they anticipated little difficulty.
The first attempt began in Campion, some 300 km (185 miles) east of Perth. 50 emus had been spotted there, but the birds were found to be out of range of the guns. The locals then attempted to herd the emus into an ambush.
The emus did not all run together as had been hoped, and chose instead to split into smaller groups making them harder to target. Several birds were killed but nowhere near the anticipated amount.
Two days later on the 4th of November, Meredith established an ambush near a dam where more than 1,000 emus were headed to. The gunners waited until the birds were in close proximity before opening fire.
Yet, the gun jammed after only 12 birds had been killed and the remainder all scattered before the problem could be solved. There were no further birds seen that day.
In the days that followed, Meredith moved south where the birds were meant to be slightly tamer. Still, he only had limited success. By the fourth day of the campaign, reporters began to say that the emu packs had leaders that would cause destruction and warn the rest of the birds if there was trouble afoot.
By the end of the sixth day, a quarter of the ammunition had been used. Only a suspected 50 birds had been killed.
Regroup and Try Again
George Pearce paused the operation on the 8th of November. Major Meredith, surprised at the tenacity of the emus, was quoted comparing them to the Zulu warriors of South Africa due to their maneuverability and speed.
Unsurprisingly the farmers’ crops continued to suffer at the hands of the emus. The 12th of November saw a reinstatement of military activity supported by the government of Western Australia.
13th November 1932 saw some success for the military as over two days they were able to kill approximately 40 emus. By the end of November, the military recorded that they were able to kill approximately 100 emus a week, a marked improvement from the first campaign.
Meredith claimed on 10th December that they had killed 986 emus with 9860 rounds of ammunition. Additionally, he said that they had injured 2,500 more that would later die from their injuries.
Despite the initial problems that the farmers had faced with the cull of the emus, they were forced to request military aid again in 1934, 1943, and 1948. All of these requests were turned down by the government.
Denied military support, they instead introduced a bounty system that proved to be effective. In 1934, 57,034 bounties were claimed in just one 6 month period.
Word began to spread around the globe about the emu war with some conservationists condemning the activity supported by the Australian government as an unwarranted extermination of a rare bird. It did increase the popularity of exclusion barrier fencing in Australia, that proved effective at keeping out emus as well as other pests.
However, even in 1950, the problem remained. Hugh Leslie, an Australian politician, campaigned for farmers to be issued with ammunition from the army to help with their emu problem. This was approved and 500,000 rounds were released to the farmers.
The Legacy of the War
The emu war of 1932 has become a popular internet meme and has even had a musical adaption of the story written by Simeon Yialeloglou and James Court released in 2019. It has been rumored that there will be a movie retelling the events in 2022.
However, the emu may have triumphed in the end. There are not only still emus roaming Australia, but they even feature on the Australian coat of arms.
There are an estimated 600,000-700,000 still alive, and they are classified as of least concern by local conservationists. The wily emu has managed to remain in the hearts of Australians after their embarrassing loss in 1932.
Top Image: Emus 1, Australia 0. Source: BestPhotoStudio / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman
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