The Great Emu War of 1932

Would you believe me if I told you that Australia lost a war to a flock of large, flightless birds? Well, you better believe it because it sounds really funny. But you shouldn’t believe it in the most literal sense, since by definition, this event was not a real war. See, if you check the “List of wars: 1900–1944” page on Wikipedia, it doesn’t even have-

Uh oh.

Ok never mind. You should believe that Australia lost a war to emus for two reasons: (1) It’s really funny. (2) It was a real war, and nothing can make me say otherwise.

The year is 1932, and you are a typical wheat farmer in the Campion district of Western Australia. In fact, many of your friends are also wheat farmers. It just made sense to take advantage of the land given from the government following the war. After countless battles in the Great War, you and your military buddies found that tilling the soil and tending to crops provided a much more peaceful existence than avoiding gunfire and explosives in wet, disease-ridden trenches.

But the decade following the end of the Great War did not prove to be much better due to the Great Depression. With the government failing to deliver on subsidies for your heightened efforts in wheat growing and the price of wheat dropping to oblivion, it truly seemed like the bleakest of times. The horrors of this economic depression were only worsened with the migration of roughly 20,000 emus.

Emus are an endemic species to Australia, holding the title for the second largest living bird by height (right behind the ostrich). They cannot fly, and their height averages just under 6 feet. They can sprint incredibly quickly and mostly eat plants. Australia stood no match for these large, flightless birds.

A typical emu.

The emus that migrated inland following mating season found the fertile soil of the crop fields to be a very suitable habitat for raising their young. Not only did these emus destroy much of the crops that were being grown, but they disturbed the soil itself, and even damaged fencing that allowed rabbits and other animals to gain access to the crops.

What do you do as a country when a flock of flightless birds threatens the livelihood of your citizens? Well, you declare war, obviously.

The World War I veteran-farmers requested the usage of machine guns (knowing their effectiveness during the Great War), so Sir George Pearce, Minister of Defence agreed with the stipulations that the machine guns would be utilized by military personnel, and aside from troop transportation, the farmers would supply the soldiers with food, shelter, and payment for ammunition.

The War to End All Wars

Though the Great War was supposedly named as such because it was the “war to end all wars,” it was a complete misnomer. We obviously call it “World War I” today because we now know all about the Great Emu War that followed it — truly the war to end all wars. Mankind vs birds.

On the side of humanity was Major G.P.W. Meredith, leading two soldiers armed with Lewis guns, light machine guns used widely in the United Kingdom during the first World War. By November of 1932, the war began: The three men travelled to the Campion district, where a mob of emus was spotted. However, the emus were out of range of the machine guns, so the locals attempted to herd them closer together for the guns to open fire. The incredibly intelligent birds decided to split up and run, making it extremely difficult for the soldiers to take aim. After multiple rounds of firing the machine guns, no more than 10–20 emus had been killed.

Just two days later, Major Meredith found much more luck, as over 1,000 emus were spotted moving towards the soldiers’ position. With an ambush set up, the soldiers waited until the birds were in range of the machine guns before firing. Unfortunately, the guns jammed as the two men opened fire, and only a dozen birds were killed as the rest of the emus fled.

Meredith decided to move further south after this failed ambush, only to run into more sophisticated emus. He noted that each mob had a leader — a large, black male that would keep watch for his fellow birds, warning them of the soldiers’ approach. As a result, many of the emu sightings during the war did not lead to an opportunity to fire, as the birds scattered in smaller mobs, confusing the soldiers’ target acquisition.

Since stealthy ambush was out of the question, Meredith changed his strategy to outright chasing the birds. The soldiers mounted one of the machine guns to a truck and gave chase at the emus. But they quickly found out that not only were the birds faster than the vehicle on the rough terrain, but the rough terrain itself made the ride so turbulent that the soldiers were unable to open fire.

After one week had elapsed since the campaign’s start, Minister George Pearce withdrew the soldiers and guns. These few events prior to the withdrawal of Meredith and his two soldiers became the most famous battles of the Great Emu War. There was a second attempt made to kill the emus, however, and that operation was far more successful (which is also why the records on it are less elaborate, since there is a clear negative correlation between how well humans perform in warfare against birds and how funny it is). In the second attempt, Meredith was once again deployed, and his soldiers actually maintained a consistent pace of roughly 100 emu kills per week. By the end of it, he reported that 986 emus were killed with exactly 9,860 rounds, meaning that each emu, on average, took 10 rounds to kill. Of course, this figure meant almost nothing in comparison to the flock of 20,000 emus, and the additional 2,500 birds that supposedly died from wounds were not officially confirmed.

The emus ended up devastating much of the wheat in Campion, and there was little support for the war itself. Very few sources, like an article from the Coolgardie Miner, actually supported the usage of machine guns on the birds. This article stated that the method with machine guns was effective and “saved what remained of the wheat.” In the end, many more emus were killed through the bounty program that Australia had instated since 1923, with over 57,000 bounties being claimed in a half-year period in 1934 alone.

Most of us can agree that the Great Emu War made WWI look like a children’s party game, but we also can’t forget the bravery of those few Australian soldiers. They faced some of the most fearsome enemies in all of history, and managed to survive. In fact, Meredith’s report on the war was that his men suffered “no casualties” — truly an astonishing feat. I ask you this: If you were in the shoes of those courageous soldiers, would you have stood strong against the endless hordes of birds?

I’d like to take just a moment to honor our Emu War veterans. Although they are no longer with us, we cannot forget their unparalleled bravery through combat. Though humanity lost the war against the emus, who knows where we would be right now without the heroic actions of those Australian soldiers?

Thank God for our Emu War vets.

Computer Science student at Rutgers University

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