The other day I was having a few drinks with friends and one of them mentioned “The Great Emu War” which the Australian army lost… we all laughed at her and told her that she’d fallen for some fake news story, but then she got her phone out, went to the Wikipedia page about it (because Wikipedia is always true right?) and proceeded to tell us all about The Emu War.
I just had to find out more, how have I never heard of this before? This is definitely going to be filed under ‘strange but true’.
What was The Great Emu War?
Back in 1932 emus were causing chaos in the Western Australia district of Campion. Emus are indigenous to Australia, they are very large birds and they’re flightless (not as scary as cassowaries but still scary to me!). The massive number of emus in the area was causing concern to the locals because an estimated 20,000 emus found that the newly cultivated farmland was a good place for them to find food and to breed. Emus migrate from the coastal regions to inland regions each year for breeding. The farmers were not happy… their wheat crops were being destroyed and the emus damaged fences which allowed rabbits to get through and to also destroy the crops (The rabbit proof fence is another story!). Farming was already difficult, with promised subsidies from the Australian government not being forthcoming and wheat prices falling.
So, in order to solve this problem the military were sent to the region with machine guns!
The Emu War
On 2 November the men traveled to Campion, where some 50 emus were sighted. As the birds were out of range of the guns, the local settlers attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but the birds split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult to target. Nevertheless, while the first fusillade from the machine guns was ineffective due to the range, a second round of gunfire was able to kill “a number” of birds. Later the same day a small flock was encountered, and “perhaps a dozen” birds were killed.
The next significant event was on 4 November. Major Meredith had established an ambush near a local dam, and over 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time the gunners waited until the birds were at point blank range before opening fire. The gun jammed after only twelve birds were killed, however, and the remainder scattered before more could be killed. No more birds were sighted that day.
In the days that followed Meredith chose to move further south where the birds were “reported to be fairly tame”, but there was only limited success in spite of his efforts. At one stage Meredith even went so far as to mount one of the guns on a truck: a move that proved to be ineffective, as the truck was unable to gain on the birds, and the ride was so rough that the gunner was unable to fire any shots. By 8 November, six days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired. The number of birds killed is uncertain: one account claims just 50 birds, but other accounts range from 200 to 500—the latter figure being provided by the settlers. Meredith’s official report noted that his men had suffered no casualties.
Summarizing the culls, ornithologist Dominic Serventy commented:
“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.”
On 8 November, representatives in the Australian House of Representatives discussed the operation. Following the negative coverage of the events in the local media, which included claims that “only a few” emus had died, Pearce withdrew the military personnel and the guns on 8 November.
After the withdrawal, Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus, and commented on the striking maneuverability of the emus, even while badly wounded.
“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.”
There was a second attempt which was more ‘successful’ – they claimed to have killed 986 birds with a further 2500 that died from their injuries. However word of the ‘war’ spread and conservationists were not happy. In the years that followed farmers requested assistance from the army again but the government said no.
So The Australian Army were pretty much defeated by the emus! Let’s hope that ‘nuisance wildlife management’ never involves machine guns again… it seems a little unfair that only one side had weapons but the emus put up a good fight and in the end they ‘won’.