The Crazy Time A Country Went to War Against A Bird- and Lost

Ash Jurberg

Australia has fought in both World Wars, the Vietnam war and in many other conflicts since. It has never engaged in combat on its own soil. Except on one occasion. When it went to war against emus.

And lost.

Emus are a native Australian bird. The second-largest bird on Earth, behind only the ostrich, they are up to 1.9 metres (6.2 ft) in height and run at speeds of 50 km/h (31 mph). The emu features on Australia’s coat of arms and also on its fifty-cent coin. Clearly, there is some affinity with the emu.

This wasn’t always the case.

The first attack — the emus assault

The year was 1932, and farmers in the state of Western Australia were struggling through the Great Depression. Many of them were veterans of World War I and upon their return had been given parcels of land in the harsh conditions of Western Australia. Promised government subsidies they grew wheat in the harsh conditions.

In search of water, this newly irrigated land was attractive to emus; as was the wheat. The numbers had always been manageable but a longer drought then normal saw more than 20,000 emus migrate from the Australian outback towards these farms. The large birds would also use their strong legs to break through the fences around the farms, creating an entry point for rabbits. There they would wreak havoc by eating all the wheat and damaging property. The emus and to a lesser extent, the rabbits were destroying the farmers livelihoods. On top of this, the farmers were frustrated that the promised government subsidies hadn’t materialised.

To say the farmers were struggling is an understatement.

Unable to stop the marauding emus, a delegation of farmers went to Australia’s capital — Canberra, on the other side of the country to demand approval to slaughter the emus. They had guns, and they had combat experience. They were ready to go to war.

The Australian defence minister, Sir George Pearce, agreed on one condition; the war would be fought not by the farmers, but by the Australian military. Pearce believed this would be a way to keep the disenchanted farmers onside as well as provide valuable target practice for his army. So confidant was Pearce of a quick victory he sent along a cameraman to record a triumph and ordered the men to keep the emu feathers for their hats.

The military campaign was led by Major GPW Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery. Accompanied by two soldiers, two Lewis guns, the cameraman, and 10,000 bullets they entered the region determined to defeat the pesky emus.

The Great Emu War begins.

The strategy of the men was to herd the emus into a small area and once they were corralled to slaughter them en masse. They were set to strike in October.

The mission suffered an early setback when heavy rain caused the emus to scatter. The rain was great for the crops, not so great for fighting emus. They were too widespread to attack, and the campaign was halted.

On November 2, they tried again. Again they had troubles — they hadn’t counted on the military nous of the large flightless bird. The emus are actually a strategic bird, and when confronted, they broke into small groups and fled in different directions. This made it impossible to corral them.

On the one occasion, the military team managed to get close enough to a small group of emus; they still struggled to kill their prey. The Lewis guns repeatedly jammed, and when they worked, the emus proved remarkably resilient to their bullets. The bullets seemed to bounce off them. It was reported that one emu was shot six times before running off. In this second attempt, they only managed to kill twenty of the emus.

A farmer with one of the emus killed by the military. Source WikiCommons

Soon after, a ceasefire was ordered, and a frustrated Meredith commented:

“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.”

In his official report, Meredith tried to spin a positive on the situation, noting while only twenty emus were killed, the humans had no casualties. I guess he was an optimist at heart.

The farmers wanted the war to be won, and after some lobbying from the Premier of Western Australia, hostilities resumed on November 13. Three more weeks of battle ensued, and Meredith and his team had better results. By the time they had exhausted all 10,000 of their bullets, they had killed 986 emus. Better than the twenty from the first campaign of the war but still less than 10% of the opposing side. It is also estimated to be one of the worst bullet-to-kill ratios in military history. Two Australian Soldiers with the Lewis Gun. Source WikiCommons

Victory to the emus

As the war ended its first-month public sympathy moved to the emu. Media reports — showing fleeing or dying emus, revolted the public and there were even protests back in England at the ongoing emu war.

The Australian Parliament questioned Pearce over the tactics and asked if there was a better way to solve the problem. One member of Parliament even sarcastically asked if there were to be medals of honor struck for this war. Clearly they were not impressed by the failed attempts thus far. Pearce assured Parliament they were acting humanely and the tactic of mass culling was required. He requested another chance to defeat the emus.

In the end, public opinion won out, and the war was ordered to end. The emus had won.

The emus continued to ravage the wheat farms of Western Australia, and two years later the farmers again requested military assistance from the government.

Would this be The Emu War II?

Happily for the emus, the request was denied. Appeals were made by Western Australian farmers again in 1944 and 1948, but again these were refused.

Australia had learned its lesson and would never again engage in battle with the emu. The emus were too strong. They had won the Great Emu War, and their victory ensured no more Emu Wars would be fought.

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