Australia's Great Emu War: How a Nation Declared War on a Bird and Lost
23:04 GMT 17.09.2021 (Updated: 23:14 GMT 17.09.2021)
In the early 1930s, as the Great Depression ravaged the world and fascism rose in Europe, the Western provinces of Australia faced their own existential crisis- the Emu War.
Following the conclusion of the First World War, the Australian government wanted to promote agricultural development in their Western provinces. Their solution was to provide land to discharged veterans to take up farming in the agriculturally marginal region. What they didn’t know was that one of the world’s fiercest fighting forces lay in wait: some 20,000 emus.
Emus are an intricate part of Australian identity. The flightless birds feature prominently in Aboriginal mythology and culture, and appear on the national coat of arms. The birds stand as tall as six feet high and are capable of reaching 31 miles-per-hour running speed. If it weren’t for their fluffy feathered coat, it wouldn’t come as a shock to believe you had just seen a velociraptor sprinting through the Australian outback.
© Flickr / Chirs KIt is believed that the emu is a survivor of prehistoric times and dates back some 80 million years roaming the outback of Australia. The Aborigine tribes relied upon the emu for their existence.
It is believed that the emu is a survivor of prehistoric times and dates back some 80 million years roaming the outback of Australia. The Aborigine tribes relied upon the emu for their existence.
© Flickr / Chirs K
In 1929, with the world gripped by the Great Depression, the Australian government started to encourage wheat cultivation with the promise of subsidies. The policy proved disastrous as wheat prices continued to fall, and the government never came through on its promise of subsidies.
By 1932, the situation was deteriorating quickly in Australia’s west. The farmers who had been sent west, and were then tasked with harvesting their relatively worthless wheat crop that the government had failed to subsidize, were now being ravaged by a sudden influx of emus.
How it Started
A group of former soldiers from the afflicted areas met with Sir George Pearce, the Minister of Defense, and requested the deployment of machine guns to subdue the emu threat. Pearce was more than willing to oblige.A secession movement was brewing in Western Australia, and sending military support to defeat the invading emus was seen as a good way to ease tensions. Pearce was so confident in the War’s success that he even sent a cinematographer to document the Australian army’s glorious victory over the barbarous native emus.
Major G. P. W. Meredith oversaw the massive military campaign that consisted of himself, two soldiers, two Lewis guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Military involvement was scheduled to begin in October of 1932, and it’s very likely they held the belief that the war would be over by Christmas. However, the grand expedition was halted by a rainy period that pushed their campaign back to November of that year.
Major Meredith’s first encounter with the emu proved to be instructive. Following up on a sighting of 50 emus, Meredith, his men, and some local settlers staged a brilliant attack on the unsuspecting birds. The settlers would herd the birds into the Lewis guns’ range, and Meredith’s men would unleash a surprise attack. The plan was perfect, except for one problem: the birds couldn’t be herded. The emus split up in small groups as they ran away, and only after the second round of gunfire could Meredith proudly proclaim that “a number” of emus had been slain.
Meredith had learned two things from his first encounter with the mighty emu: that treating the descendants of the dinosaurs like sheep was a foolish proposition, and that he needed to be close to them to have a chance. A few days later, he would have his chance to assert Australia’s military might over their fiercest rival.
Meredith and his gunners set up camp near a dam. The men lay in wait as a group of 1,000 emus headed towards their fortifications. This time they knew they needed to wait for the enemy to be close. They needed to stare death in its eyes and then unleash the fury of man’s military sophistication upon their enemy.
As the emus came into range, Meredith gave his men the signal and the gunners unleashed hell upon the flock. Their ambush had been a success. A dozen devilish emus dropped to their deaths. With each passing burst from the Lewis gun, victory inched closer.
But then, the Lewis gun had jammed, the remaining emus scattered, and Meredith’s sure victory had been undone by the sophistication of man’s finest military technology.
As one observer noted, “The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be.”
The campaign did not improve for Meredith in the subsequent days. The emus were able to evade his tactics even as he learned more and more about Australia’s most formidable foe. Every pack of emus has a leader “who keeps watch while fellows busy themselves with the wheat.” This one brave emu wouldl raise the alarm and wait for the flock to escape into the scrub.
The birds “travelling at nearly 30 miles an hour and bearing more feathers than flesh, the birds make almost impossible targets.”
Meredith knew what his problem was. The emu was simply too fast for his stationary Lewis gunners. So, he did the only sensible thing available to him and mounted his Lewis gun onto a truck in a proto-”Mad Max”-ian attempt to subdue the emu. The plan was sure to succeed. No bird could outrun both a truck and bullet. The brilliant tactic was short-lived. The emus could maintain their distance from the encumbered truck, and the uneven terrain made aiming the gun nearly impossible.
How it Ended
After six days 2,500 rounds had been fired. The number of birds killed remains uncertain, with some estimates as low as 50 and some as high as 500. At this point, the local press was less than impressed by Meredith’s campaign and the poor publicity caused Pearce to withdraw his troops.
However, Meredith was thoroughly impressed by the emu, stating, "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."
The military impasse did not last long. With the emus continuing to ravage the farmers’ crop, Meredith was once again deployed. With reports that the first campaign had successfully managed to slay 300 emus, the second offensive was sure to benefit from the first’s failure.
From November 13th to December 10th of 1932, Meredith perfected the art of slaying the emu. By his estimations, he killed 986 emus with 9,860 rounds, and that 2,500 more emus died from their wounds. Meredith’s victory of the emu did not last long. Farmers once again requested military assistance in 1934, 1943, and 1948, but the military turned them down each time. In fact, in 1943 the farmers requested that bombs be used to hold the mighty emu at bay.
Australia has come up with less lethal ways to contain the emu. The expansion and development of fencing have helped to protect crops.