Usually, wars happens between two nations or maybe two or more cities or states fighting over beliefs, ideals, religions, territories, or even spices. However, in Australia during 1932, their army fought with machine guns against an unusual battalion of enemies— The Emu. Yep, the majestic, large, flightless birds of Australia.

Plant-Munching Birds

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) in south-eastern Australia. (Benjamint444GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ostriches are pretty famous and are number one on the list when it comes to flightless birds. Their long, powerful legs can run up to 43.5 MPH. But we’re not here for them but for their cousins native to Australia, the emus. Emu birds are the second largest birds that can’t fly. They have soft brown feathers, with long necks and legs that can make them stand up to 6.2 feet in height. Their legs could motor them along at speeds approaching 31 MPH. They are usually found in Tasmania and King Island, and their diet consists of insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. They also love plants and guzzle copious amounts of water, which started the conflict.

The Beginning of War

After World War I, the Australian government gave the veterans lands in Western Australia so that they could farm. When the Great Depression started in 1929, the government suggested that the veterans-turned-farmers plant wheat crops, which they did. This suggestion came with a promise that they would provide subsidies for these farmers, which they failed to deliver. The price of wheat continued to fall, and the farmers were threatening not to deliver their crops once they harvested them, leaving Australia wheatless in the face of the economic crash.

Plate 20 of The Emu, an ornithological journal, illustrating Whitlock, F. Lawson (1913). (Whitlock, F. Lawson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

One fine morning, the farmers were up early and ready to harvest their crops, but to their horror, their wheat crops were all gone and consumed by some 20,000 emus that migrated overnight after their breeding season. They decided to consume the crops around Chandler and Walgoolan specifically. Not only that, but their arrival also caused large gaps on the crop fences, so naturally, the rabbits joined the party. It was as if huge hairy locusts had descended on them.

Instead of calling pest control of the wildlife services, they met with the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, to address the concern. These World War I veterans knew that only machine guns would be effective against thousands of 6ft birds that could run as fast as a horse. They demanded that the government give them troops armed with machine guns to be employed against these feathered thieves destroying their livelihood, to which Pearce agreed with conditions:

  • Only military personnel will use the guns
  • Western Australia should finance the troop transport
  • The farmers would provide food, accommodation, and payment for the ammunition

Pearce also thought this would be a great opportunity to campaign against a budding secessionist movement seeking independence from Great Brittain filming the government saving Western Australian farmers. So they brought along a film crew with them.

Cut!

In October 1932, the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery led by Major G. P. W. Meredith marched into the field to face their avian foe, willing to risk their lives to help the poor farmers. At least that’s what the TV narration would’ve said as they covered the footage of these soldiers marching against the birds who were clueless that a war against them had just started. However, the operation was delayed anyway due to heavy rains. They resumed a month later on November 2 when the rain stopped.

Australian civilians acted as scouts for the army during the Emu War. (Pickering Brook Heritage/Wikimedia Commons)

They first went to Campion with their Lewis guns and thousands of rounds of ammo. There, they sighted 50 emus, but they were too far and out of range of the guns. The locals tried to herd them towards the gunners, but they ran in small groups. Their first burst of machine-gun fire didn’t kill anything, while their second one only killed a couple. These things could run and run fast. Hopefully, the cinematographer had not filmed that. The soldiers swore it wasn’t over yet and that they would take their revenge.

And they did.

They went back after two days, this time patiently waiting for the emus to come within firing range, holding their fire until they could see the yellow of their eyes perhaps and then they let them have it. There were a 1,000 of these birds this time, and they were pretty confident that they’d mow them down in neat rows like the Germans at the Somme. The firing began and then stopped almost immediately having jammed. and only after killing 12. The rest stampeded away in a cloud of dust. The army had lost their second skirmish with the Emus. Major Meredith was not pleased at all with how the campaign was going so far. At one point, he ordered them to mount their guns on trucks and chase the Emu which did not work either, the trucks would bog down in the sand and the Emus could run circles around them.  Plus, the gunners couldn’t fire accurately with the truck bounding and thumping its way through the outback.

What it would take is a switch to unconventional warfare tactics and quickly.

As summarized by ornithologist D.L. Serventy:

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.

Bounty On Their Heads

The farmers again asked for help about the still-unsolved terrorizing of these giant birds. The Premier of Westen Australia named James Mitchell lent his military assistance to support these farmers. By December 10, Meredith claimed that 986 emus were killed with 9,860 rounds (10 rounds per kill).

A man holding an emu killed by Australian soldiers (The Land Newspaper/Wikimedia Commons)

Once more, the farmers requested help, but they were turned down this time. Instead, they placed a bounty on these emus’ heads like John Wick after becoming excommunicated. This proved to be effective as 57,034 bounties were claimed over the period of six months in 1934.

Honestly, we don’t know why they didn’t just eat them.  Emu meat contains myoglobin which not only makes it taste like beef but looks like it too. It’s red meat and in this case, fattened up eating the farmer’s grain crops. Not to mention that an Emu lays eggs the size of softballs. You could make breakfast for four with just one egg.

P.S. John Cleese, Monty Franklin, and Rob Schneider are working on a film about The Great Emu War.

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