Australia has been known as the home of some of the world’s most insanely dangerous animals known to man. You hear about giant great white sharks, crocodiles, giant spiders, and terrifying koalas.
Not to mention the fact that Australia is home to the most poisonous snake in the entire world. In fact, it’s home to a ton of snakes. Including, but not limited to: Black-headed Python, Olive Python, Oenpelli python, Boiga irregularis, Cerberus rynchops, Tree Python, Enhydris polylipis, Stegonotus cucullatus, Keelback, Common Death Adder, Desert death adder, Demansia vestigiata, Demansia olivacea, Demansia papuensis, King brown snake, Spotted brown snake, Ringed brown snake, Western brown snake, Eastern brown snake, Rhinoplocephalus pallidiceps, Suta suta, and, of course, the Bandy-Bandy.
Now any of these previously mentioned animals can be seen as a real threat. However, there are few animals that have disrupted the ways of life in Australia more than the emu.
In fact, emus caused so much trouble in Australia that the government decided to declare war on them in 1932. So today, we’ll be looking into the Great Emu War of Australia to find out what happened, why it happened, and who actually won the war.
Our story begins just after the end of WWI in 1918. At this time in history, Australian veterans were beginning to return home. However, they were returning to nothing.
Most of the soldiers, as is the case even today, led common lives working blue-collar jobs such as farming prior to the war. Obviously, following the war the government had no real use for these soldiers and had to demobilise them. However, the government needed to figure out what to do with these veterans.
They had already begun paying them War pensions and giving other financial assistance, but they had to figure out a way to help these veterans become financially independent. To this end, the government decided to develop a ‘soldier resettlement scheme’.
The idea behind this resettlement scheme was to purchase large quantities of land and to allocate these lands to war veterans to use for farming. This was a pretty huge undertaking and throughout this scheme, the government purchased millions of acres to be allotted to veterans that applied to receive them.
Thousands of veterans were allotted these farms to cultivate wheat and raise sheep. However, it soon came to light that a large majority of the land was unusable and the veterans were struggling to produce enough wheat to actually make a living.
To make matters worse, soon following the resettlement scheme, the Great Depression hit in 1929. Because of this, wheat prices began to fall. So, this land that the veterans had been given to grow wheat not only wasn’t growing wheat; it was also producing wheat that was worth next to nothing.
Because the veterans were struggling, the government decided to assist them and offer them subsidies for the wheat if they were to grow more. So, the government would give them money to offset their losses due to the depression.
The farmers have still, to this day, not received a penny of these promised subsidies. But, if terrible land, empty promises, and a depression weren’t enough, the soldier-farmers were soon to meet their toughest enemy yet.
Emus are only found in Australia, which I actually did not know. I won’t go into all of the quick facts of emus just yet, I’ll give you readers some at the end of the article. However, I will discuss information about them necessary to the story.
Firstly, they are flightless birds, which many likely know. They generally stand about 5’7” and males weigh about 110 to 121 pounds; females are said to weigh about 10 pounds heavier than males. In terms of habitats, they must have daily access to fresh water and vegetation. If they do not have access to food or water, they will travel for hundreds of miles until they find them.
The reason I bring up their migration is this: before the cultivation of the farms for the veterans, emus were constrained to certain areas of Australia due to the lack of access to food and water. The inhospitable lands that the farms now occupied had previously been void of vegetation and water.
When building the farms, however, the government also constructed artificial, but permanent, watering points for the farm animals. The watering points and the newly growing crops made for pretty tempting meals for the emus, who began stumbling upon the farms during their migrations.
Their numbers began growing steadily, and by 1932 it’s said that 20,000 emus had migrated to the newly formed farmlands. These emus then took to eating and destroying a large majority of the crops.
Up to this point in Australia, emus had been a protected native species, but with the havoc being brought on the veterans and their farms, they soon became known as pests. Since they were literally eating the veteran’s livelihoods, the veterans started to worry that they would soon go bankrupt.
Because of these worries, the farmers soon approached the government for further assistance with the issue. At this point, I can only imagine that the government was very tired of these veteran-farmers coming to them asking for help with this farmland. This is the importance of proper planning, people. Don’t put farms where they don’t belong.
A chosen group of the farmers were sent to meet with the then Minister of Defense, Sir George Pearce. In their meeting, the farmers and Pearce discussed their problems with the emus at length. The farmers, having served in the WWI, thought that it may be a good idea to kill the emus with machine guns and requested to have them issued.
Pearce agreed to assist the farmers under three conditions: the machine guns must be used by military personnel, the Western Australian government had to finance the troop transport, and the farmers had to provide food and accommodation to the soldiers as well as pay for the ammunition. The farmers agreed and thus the Great Emu war was declared.
Some claim that this “war” was really just a publicity stunt by the Minister of Defense. Particularly because at this time in Australian history, there was talk in Western Australian about seceding to form a separate country.
It’s claimed that Sir George Pearce wanted to create a lot of publicity around this “war” to possibly highlight the Australian government assisting the Western Australians. Possibly to convince the Western Australians that the Australian government was there to help them. We’ll find out later that the publicity of the war somewhat backfired.
Also, a bit of further backstory, there was even a vote on secession within Western Australia after the Great Emu War. Almost 70% of the population voted to leave the Commonwealth of Australia. However, the establishment of Australia had actually been an Act of the British Parliament.
When they were approached with this vote from Western Australia, the British Parliament said that it was not something they could act on since the Western Australians did not have the support of the Australian federal government. So that vote was set aside.
The Australian government spared no expense in assisting in the Great Emu War. To head the attacks, they sent Major G. P. W. Meredith. Under Meredith’s command was a full fighting force of two men. Along with this incredible army, the government also sent two machine guns with 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
Since there were around 20,000 emus, I don’t believe they planned on killing all of them unless they lined them up in front of each other. Either way, with this great force and numerous weapons, the emus’ days were numbered.
Australian military involvement was scheduled to begin in October 1932, but it rained. So, the war was postponed until November 1932. On 2 November 1932, the war truly commenced, as by this point I’m sure the two riflemen were just foaming at the mouth for emu blood.
The army travelled to the town of Campion where a group of 50 emus had been spotted. Unfortunately, the emus were out of range for the gunners. So, some nearby settlers volunteered to assist in herding the emus towards Meredith and his men. However, the emus were cunning, and they were waiting for this moment. Instantly, all of them scattered in every direction.
Confused at the scene, the riflemen fired at the birds. Out of the fifty emus, the men claimed to have killed “a number of birds.” Later the same day, another flock was encountered. The men claimed that they killed “perhaps a dozen” at this battle. Major Meredith had made a crucial mistake in this war: he had underestimated his opponent. So, he and his men retired for the day to plan another attack.
On November 4th, 1932, the Major planned an ambush on his feathered foes near a local dam. After setting this ambush, the men heard word that 1,000 emus were heading in their direction. “This is it,” Meredith thought to himself. “This is when I prove to the world that I’m a man.” Meredith was actually so confident with this planned ambush that they had only brought one of their two machine guns. They soon caught sight of the giant flock. The emus, who could run up to 30 miles per hour, were speeding in their direction.
Meredith readied his men. I can only assume both of the riflemen were holding the one rifle at this point. “Hold,” Meredith said. Both riflemen struggled to control their breathing. “Hold.” Sweat began to drip from the men’s brows. “HOLD.” The flock was just seconds away from being in range. “FIRE!” Meredith finally yelled; and fire they did.
The machine gun was fired into the flock of 1,000 birds for a full couple seconds until it jammed. Then all of the emus scattered away from the area. The men had killed 12 emus, and no more were seen that day.
Let me just say that obviously that previous part of the story was embellished with impeccable writing. It very likely didn’t happen exactly like that, but the gun did jam and only 12 birds were killed.
The following few days, Major Meredith decided that they should try to go further south where the birds were reportedly “fairly tame.” Although, this also turned out to be a failure. Now this next bit of information is not embellishment, but actually a quote.
By the fourth day of the war it was observed that "each pack seems to have its own leader now – a big black-plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach". So, effectively, the emus were starting to fight back.
With the emus evolving, Meredith had to evolve as well. He decided that they couldn’t wait for the emus to come to them anymore, he would have to take the fight to their homes, and their schools, and their cities. Since the emus always ran away when they were attacked, it was thought that mounting one of the machine guns to the top of a truck would be a great idea.
However, unfortunately, this was dumb. As I said a moment ago, emus can run up to 30 miles per hour, and a truck going 30 miles per hour in the Outback is not going to be a smooth ride. In fact, it was so bumpy that the men couldn’t kill a single bird.
Six days after the beginning of the war, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been used. The number of emus killed was uncertain. Although, the men were tasked with killing at least 100 birds and returning with their skins, so you’d think they would have kept track of the number of birds killed. The number is somewhere between 50 and 500, but I would argue it could be even less. Luckily for the men, they had suffered no casualties, which Major Meredith had actually listed in his official report on the war.
This next bit is very funny to me. An ornithologist by the name of Dominic Serventy commented on the Great Emu war saying: “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.”
After the failure of these battles, the war began receiving negative press coverage in the local media, with some papers claiming the emus were too fast for the soldiers and that “only a few” had been killed. Because of this, the Australian House of Representatives discussed the operation. Eventually, the Minister of Defense decided to withdraw the military personnel and the guns on November 8th. As the emus were still numbering around the 19,000-20,000 range, it’s fairly safe to say that they won the war.
Only a few days after the withdrawal of the army of three the farmers were begging for more government assistance. The emu invasions were not getting better. In fact, it seemed like they were pretty pissed off with the farmers because of the war.
The situation was so bad that the Premier of Australia supported military reinvolvement. The Australian government decided to go for a second attempt at the Great Emu War. They offered the guns to the Western Australian government if they could provide the necessary people. However, they could not.
I’m sure you can imagine at this point that the disgraced Major Meredith was sulking in a pint of Fosters blitzed out of his mind in some random bar because he had just lost a war against Emus. Well, since the necessary men could not be found by the Western Australians, the Australian government needed someone with experience. Someone who had seen the horrors of those great birds. So, who else, but Meredith?
This second attempt at the war was actually much more successful. In fact, over the course of about a month, Meredith claims that his men killed 986 emus with the use of 9860 rounds, effectively killing one emu for every ten rounds shots. He also claimed that 2,500 of the birds died from their injuries. Although this still barely put a dent in the emu population, it was claimed that the second attempt of the war had saved a bit of the wheat. But at what cost?
Following the conclusion to the Great Emu War, the farmers actually continued having trouble with the emus. They requested government assistance multiple times, but they were rejected each time. The government did, however, put a bounty system in place for the killing of the emus which helped a bit.
The Great Emu War was criticised by some animal rights activists. It was claimed that the war was actually less of a culling of the population, and more of an extermination of the birds. They believed that the aim of the war was the total destruction of the emus. Luckily, the birds were completely bulletproof.
Finally, the use of pest-exclusion fencing started becoming a popular defense to the emus. Which makes me wonder why the farmers didn’t just look at this option to begin with, but who am I to judge? Either way, I feel pretty confident in saying that the Australians did lose the Great Emu War, and I suppose we can say that that is pretty unfortunate.
"The Great Emu War of Australia" by Gordon Cope