The emu is the second largest bird in the world, after the ostrich. It is native to Australia, and is an important part of the country’s indigenous mythology, even appearing on the Australian coat of arms. It can grow to be as tall as 6’2” and, when necessary, it can sprint at speeds up to 30 miles per hour.
This is an emu:
This is a close-up of an emu:
Look into those eyes. Take a good, long look. Do you see some cunning and intelligence in those eyes? Perhaps even a bit of smugness? If not, then let me tell you something that may change your mind: there was a war between the Australian army and the emus… and the emus won.
The Great Emu War, as it has come to be called, happened in 1932 in Western Australia. After World War I (don’t worry, I promise that this is the only time WWI will be mentioned in this blog post), Australia needed a good way to support its veterans, and created a “soldier settlement scheme” in which returning soldiers would be given plots of land in order to create working farms. Eventually, thousands of veterans were settled in this way. It wasn’t an easy life, since the land was, in many cases, barely usable, but the veterans hung on.
The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, only complicated matters. Despite recommendations from the government to increase their wheat crops – which the farmers did – the promised subsidies from the Australian government for doing so never materialized. Wheat prices steadily declined. By 1932, the situation for the farmers had become desperate. As the Dust Bowl ravaged America’s farmland (more on that another time), a drought wreaked havoc on Australia and the farmers’ crops.
And then things got worse.
Driven by the drought, as well as by their normal migratory patterns, giant hordes of emus (somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 or so) arrived on the farmers’ lands and proceeded to eat everything in sight. Do you remember the part in On the Banks of Plum Creek (part of the “Little House on the Prarie” series) where the “grasshoppers” (actually the now-extinct Rocky Mountain Locusts) show up and completely destroy the family’s crops? Picture that, but with 100-pound birds instead of insects. The emus also created large holes in the fences that allowed other animals, like rabbits, to get in and eat whatever was left.
Fearing for their livelihoods, the farmers – who well remembered the efficacy of certain weapons on the battlefield – sent a small delegation to the government in Canberra to request the deployment of machine guns to stop the emu menace. The government did them one better: they sent in the Australian army. Under the command of Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, a small expeditionary force (three men total, including the Major, plus a cinematographer who was likely there for propaganda purposes) was dispatched to deal with the emus. They had two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition on hand.
These men spent the better parts of November and December 1932 battling the emus. The first attempt on November 2nd was foiled by the unexpected intelligence of the birds, who resisted attempts by local farmers to herd them into a small area for some “fish in a barrel” –type shooting, instead quickly and efficiently scattering. As one ornithologist, Dominick Serventy, put it, the emus “apparently adopted guerilla tactics and split into small units. This made the use of military equipment uneconomic.”1 A very small number of birds were killed in this first encounter. Another small number (perhaps a dozen) were killed in a second attempt later in the day.
November 4th’s sortie was another failure. Over 1000 emus approached Meredith’s ambush, but the machine gun jammed after killing only twelve, and the rest scattered before the men could regroup. A local newspaper, the Kalgoorlie Miner, marveled in a November 5th, 1932 article, “The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be.”2 The same article also noted that even the birds who had been successfully shot were not necessarily dying, as they possessed “more feathers than flesh,” as well as an extraordinary fortitude and speed that made them nearly impossible targets to hit.
Recognizing the swiftness of the running emu, the army then tried to account for this by mounting one of the machine guns in a truck, but this too was a dismal failure: the truck was unable to catch up to the birds, and the ride was so bumpy that the gunner was unable to aim or fire a single shot. One farmer, understandably frustrated, ran an emu down with his car, but the body of the emu tangled up with his steering wheel, causing the truck to run straight off the road and into a nearby fence. (Is anyone else starting to have visions of Wile E. Coyote in an army uniform yet?)
By the 8th of November, less than a week after the war had started, the army had already used 2,500 of its 10,000 rounds with a disappointing success rate. While accounts vary, ranging from 50 birds killed to up to 500 birds killed, even the kindest possible calculations (assuming that the 500 birds killed number is true) conclude that it took an average of at least 5 bullets to kill a single bird. If those numbers held true, then the army would only have the ability to kill 10% of the emu horde before running out of ammunition.
Following this disaster and the negative press it was receiving, the government decided to end the operation on November 8th and recalled the men and the guns. By November 12th, however, pleas from the farmers convinced the government to send Meredith and his men back into the breach. This, however, was not before one politician, as documented in Dr. Murray Johnson's entries in the Journal of Australian Studies, responded to a colleague's query as to whether there should be a medal for the men taking part in the war by retorting that any medal should, rightfully, go to the emus, as they had "won every round so far."3
The soldiers found a small measure of success, killing 40 emus on November 13th, but thereafter their success rate declined again until the mission was called off once and for all on December 10th. Meredith’s final report indicated that on average it took ten bullets to kill a single bird. Lamenting the failure of his mission, he told a local newspaper, “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.”4
The Great Emu War, as the Nov.-Dec. 1932 operation has come to be known, is generally considered a pretty embarrassing failure for the Australian army. Despite further requests from farmers over the following two decades for machine guns and assistance, the Australian government never again attempted to deploy official force against the emu.
The emus could not be reached for comment.
1 Quoted in Ornithology, by Frank Gill, pg. xxvi, accessed at https://books.google.com/books?id=zM0tG5ApO0UC&pg=PR26#v=onepage&q&f=false.
2 "WAGING WAR ON EMUS." Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 - 1950) 5 Nov 1932: 4. Web. 8 Nov 2015 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article94775028>.
3 Johnson, Murray “ 'Feathered Foes': Soldier Settlers and Western Australia's 'Emu War' of 1932” Journal of Australian Studies 88 (2006): 147-157.
4 "New Strategy In A War On The Emu." The Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW : 1949 - 1953) 5 Jul 1953: 13. Web. 8 Nov 2015 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18516559>.