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What was the Emu War?

In one of the more extreme displays of animal control likely to be seen, a machine gun unit was sent to cull the flightless birds in the Australian Outback in the early 1930s. As Jonny Wilkes explores, however, the army severely underestimated its enemy…

An emu stares into the camera
Published: July 20, 2022 at 9:05 am
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In 1932, the Australian military went to war. Nearly 15 years before, its soldiers had fought in the First World War, and the Second World War was not far ahead, but this was a very different kind of conflict: the enemy were emus.

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The large, flightless birds – almost six feet in height on average, and capable of running 30 miles per hour – can be found all over Australia, and are able to travel huge distances during their breeding season.

This posed a sizable problem for the wheat farmers of Western Australia in the early 1930s, as large populations of emus could (and did) suddenly appear, break their fences and ruin their crops. What’s more, each broken fence meant that other animals, such as rabbits or dingoes, could get in and wreak further havoc. Around 20,000 of the flightless birds had descended on the Campion and Walgoolan regions in the so-called ‘wheatbelt’.

Why did the 'Emu War' happen?

This was the time of the Great Depression, and it was already hitting farmers hard. wheat prices were falling, but the subsidies promised by the government had not been delivered. The farmers, many of them war veterans, could do next to nothing about those problems, so their anger and frustration went into seeking a drastic solution to the emu epidemic.

They found an ally in Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, who agreed to their requests for machine guns to rid the Outback of the emu menace.

It was not a large operation. The military force he dispatched was comprised of two soldiers, Sergeant S McMurray and Gunner J O’Halloran, under the command of Major Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery. They were equipped with two Lewis light machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition – half the bullets for the number of emus they were sent to cull.

Pearce was so convinced that it would be a success that he sent a news cinematographer from Fox Movietone to film the ‘war’. He believed there could be some good PR for the government.

Military operations got underway in early November 1932, having been delayed a few weeks due to rain. The idea was to herd the emus towards the guns, where they would present an easy target.

How did the army lose the Emu War?

Nothing went to plan. As soon as the shooting started, the birds scattered into quick-moving, hard-to-hit small groups. Even when the soldiers did find their mark, the emus could withstand several bullets to their bodies seemingly without knowing it, let alone dying. They had the “invulnerability of tanks”, said Meredith.

Every attack failed miserably, including a major ambush on at least 1,000 emus that came to nought when the machine gun jammed after just a few seconds. On 8 November, the pint-sized army withdrew, only to be sent back within a few days when the farmers begged for a second assault.

That lasted until December, at which point Meredith and his men were forced to admit defeat and retreat: the Australian army had been defeated by emus. They had used nearly all 10,000 rounds of ammunition, but at the cost of 10 rounds per emu killed.

What was the aftermath of the Emu War?

The failures of the so-called ‘Great Emu War’ were widely ridiculed in the press, and not just in Australia. The news spread around the globe, drawing criticism from conservationists as far away as Britain.

One tongue-in-cheek battle report was offered by the ornithologist DL Serventy. “The machine-gunners’ dreams of point-blank fire into serried masses of emus were soon dissipated," he wrote. "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.”

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Not long afterwards, a much more effective strategy emerged: would-be emu hunters (anyone with a rifle, essentially) were offered a bounty. In six months in 1934, bounties for more than 57,000 emus were claimed.

Authors

Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.

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