Australia’s Emu War
“Tall and majestic” is how the San Diego Zoo describes the emu. Hmmm? Others might use adjectives such as homely, gangling, or goofy. But, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if the beholder is a birder, then tall and majestic it is.
Up to six feet tall and weighing between 60 and 120 pounds, emus belong to the ratite family that includes ostriches and kiwis. They are only found in the Southern Hemisphere and are flightless.
Here endeth the ornithology lesson.
A Plague of Emus
In the early days of the Great Depression farmers in Western Australia were having a hard time. The price of wheat was falling and then the emus arrived; 20,000 of them. As was the habit of the big birds they moved inland to breed between April and November and they were looking for lunch – breakfast and dinner too.
The wheat fields provided an attractive buffet that made the misery of the farmers even worse. They trampled down fences and that made it easy for rabbits to get into the wheat fields and have a good meal as well.
The farmers wanted ammunition to deal with the problem but couldn’t get it so they called on the government to act.
A Job for the Military
A deputation of farmers, many of them ex-soldiers, went to see the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. Having survived the trench warfare of Flanders they knew about the effectiveness of machine guns.
“Give us Lewis guns,” said the vets, “and we’ll deal with the emus.”
(The Lewis gun saw service throughout the Great War and into the Korean War in the early 1950s. Its bullets had a .303 calibre and the gun fired between 500 and 600 rounds a minute.)
Minister Pearce agreed to the armaments but insisted they be kept in the hands of serving soldiers under military command. Obviously, the idea of a bunch of hayseeds running about with lethal weaponry did not sit well with the bureaucrats.
The only concession was that the very generous graciously allowed the farmers to provide food and accommodation for the soldiers, and to pay for the ammunition. The army saw the operation as providing good target practice.
The War Begins
Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery was put in charge of the force. But, “force” is perhaps not the right word, for one source says the deployment consisted of two men with two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
The initial assault on the enemy was planned for October 1932 but heavy rains caused the emus to disperse over a wide area and the attack was delayed until November. The soldiers were tasked with producing 100 dead birds and for the feathers to be collected to make hats for the light horseman.
In the first skirmishes the military might of Australia did not cover itself with glory. The birds were out of range and when the shooting began they scattered. Towards the end of the day a small flock was encountered and about a dozen emus were felled.
A couple of days later, about a 1,000 emus were heading into an ambush. This was going to be an avian replay of the Battle of the Somme. Oops, the trusty Lewis gun jammed after only about 12 were bagged. The rest, wisely, took off to other pastures.
New tactic. Mount the gun on a truck. It turns out that emus are faster than trucks and taking aim from the bouncing box of a pick-up was impossible. Another issue was that emus turned out to be surprisingly resistant to bullets. One was hit five times and only died when it was hit by a vehicle.
Another corpse became entangled in a truck’s steering gear causing it to crash off the road and take out a length of fence.
The entire operation was descending into farce, although a case can be made that it was already there.
(Honestly, this is true. You can’t make this stuff up).
The Emu War Ends
After two weeks, Major Meredith assessed the campaign:
- Bullets fired: 9,860
- Dead emus: 900 to 1,000
- Kill ratio: one in ten.
With those dismal numbers the major was recalled to headquarters and the Emu War came to an end.
Ornithologist D.L. Serventy watched the affairs and turned war correspondent. He wrote:
“The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.”
Even Major Meredith offered gracious admiration for the flightless bird that defeated him: “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.”
Murray Johnson noted in The Journal of Australian Studies “When one New South Wales state Labor politician enquired whether ‘a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war,’ his federal counterpart in Western Australia, responded that they should rightly go to the emus who ‘have won every round so far.’ ”
A Hollow Victory
Eventually, the powers that be turned to the private sector. As reported by IFL Science “… the Australian government decided to build a very costly wall along the western territories to keep them out, and hire bounty hunters to cull their numbers. Both proved a lot more effective, and in 1934, after just six months, over 57,000 emus were killed.”
Emus were given protected native species status until 1922. After they started eating wheat crops they were reclassified as vermin. The protected status has since been restored and there are now between 600,000 and 700,000 emus in Australia.
The Emu War is sometimes called the Great Emu War, but probably only by the birds.
Male emus are slightly smaller than females.
A Victory Dance?
- “Emus.” San Diego Zoo, undated.
- “In 1932, Australia Declared War On Emus—And Lost.” Urvija Banerji, Atlas Obscura, March 21, 2016.
- “The Great Emu War: In Which Some Large, Flightless Birds Unwittingly Foiled the Australian Army.” Bec Crew, Scientific American, August 4, 2014
- “The Great Emu War Of 1932 Is As Weird As It Sounds.” IFL Science, undated.