The Great Emu War of Australia sounds like a joke but it was real! 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.
I first heard about “The Great Emu War”, which the Australian army lost, when having a few drinks with friends. One mentioned it and 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 Caused The Great Emu War?
Emus migrate from the coastal regions to inland regions each year for breeding. An estimated 20,000 emus realised that the newly cultivated farmland in Campion was a good place for them to breed and to find food. The farmers were obviously not happy because their wheat crops were being destroyed. The emus also 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 before the Emus appeared in the area. The Australian Government was not providing the farmers with subsidies which they’d been promised and at the same time wheat prices had been falling.
A group of ex-soldiers who had settled in the area were sent to speak with the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. Unbelievably, in order to solve this problem the military were sent to the region with machine guns! Sir George Pearce was ex-military and the soldiers (now farmers) requested that machine guns be sent to the area. Being ex-military they were all aware of how effective machine guns would be.
The Emu War
On the 2nd of November 1932 the military traveled to Campion, where some 50 emus had been seen. The birds were out of range of the guns, so the locals attempted to herd the emus into an ambush. However the birds split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult targets. The first series of shots fired was ineffective due to how far away the Emus were. 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.
On the 4th of November Major Meredith had prepared for an ambush near a local dam and over 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time they waited until the birds were at point blank range before opening fire. The gun jammed after only 12 birds were killed and the remaining Emu’s scattered before more could be killed.
In the days that followed Major Meredith chose to move further south where the birds were “reported to be fairly tame”. By the 8th of November, only 6 days into the war, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired. Considering so many shots were fired the emu casualties were not great. The number of birds killed is unclear: one account claims just 50 birds, but other accounts range from 200 to 500.
Fortunately for Major Meredith the military had not suffered any casualties at the ‘hand’s’ of the Emus, according to his official report anyway.
Summarising the 6 days of war, an ornithologist named 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 the 8th of November, the Australian House of Representatives discussed the military operation. Following the humiliating negative coverage of the war in the local media, which had claimed that “only a few” emus had died, Sir George Pearce withdrew the military personnel and the guns.
Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus, and commented on how well they did, even when they were 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 to rid the area of Emu’s which was more ‘successful’. There were claims that 986 birds were killed and a further 2500 that died from their injuries. But word of the war on Emu’s had spread and conservationists were not happy. In the years that followed farmers requested assistance from the army again but the government said no.
What I find so strange about the whole situation is that it was even considered. I say this partly because the emu is on the Australian Coat of Arms. My assumption would be that if you have an animal on the Coat of Arms, there is at least a little bit of respect there. But seeing as the kangaroo, their other National Symbol, is a popular Aussie food, I really shouldn’t be that surprised.
The good thing is that 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 certainly put up a good fight.
In the end I think it’s fair to say the Emu’s won – and humiliated the military at the same time.