Australia is known for its heat, as well as for the deadly animals that roam the island nation. Although not nearly as popular as the Ostrich, the Emu bird is the second largest bird on the planet and it happens to reside in this unique and diverse place. The flightless running birds, known as ratites, live throughout most of the continent but are most common in areas of savannah woodland and sclerophyll forest. The Great Emu War of 1932 is exactly what it sounds like. Although hard to believe, there was once a time in history when mankind went to war with birds and sadly lost. The bizarre war took place in 1932 between Australian soldiers with machine guns and the Emu birds.
In 1932, on the hot red-dirt landscape of Western Australia, around 20,000 Emu birds migrated in search of water.
After World War I concluded, many of the soldiers from Australia went back to their day jobs as farmers. Following the Great Depression of 1929, families were starving and jobs were scarce. The wheat industry was crumbling and the price of wheat was rising sky high. This forced many of the ex-soldiers to take up wheat farming. As life was getting better, things started falling apart again. This time, it wasn’t because of wars or drought but because of some migratory birds.
The Emu birds were migrating in search of water when they stumbled across the region’s delicious wheat districts. The birds then started feeding on the crops and destroying farmlands.
By late 1932, the ex-soldiers requested military aid from the Minister of Defence, George Pearce.
The then Minister of Defence, George Pearce, decided to intervene and stop the Emus from raiding the farmlands. Pearce didn’t want civilians handling weapons and thought, “why not send some troops to the west and be done with it?”. Pearce was also interested in winning the votes of people who lived in rural areas by showing that he cared. He sent a camera crew to capture his troops taking down the Emu population.
Although Pearce saw this as a great opportunity to win votes, he also knew that things could go wrong. He made an agreement with the locals that if things went south, Pearce would not be held responsible for what happened.
The first attack took place with machine guns that fired 300 rounds per minute and more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
The soldiers prepared for the first attack, thinking that all they had to do was just point and shoot to take down the birds. The overconfident militia opened fire from hundreds of yards away but the birds, who are extremely fast, scattered into all directions. They are capable of running over 50 kmph (31 mph) and the soldiers had no chance of hitting their targets. On the first day, the soldiers returned with no casualties.
On day 2, Major G. P. W. Meredith, who led the militia, ordered his men to sneak up on the birds and shoot from as close as possible. The men crawled and shot from as close as 100 yards. A hail of bullets were fired onto a group of approximately 1,000 Emu birds. When the dust settled, the men were dumbstruck to see that less than a dozen of them were dead.
Emus are incredibly agile and intelligent creatures. They took cover in shadowy scrubs and behind trees, where the soldiers couldn’t get a clean shot.
When the ex-soldiers informed their general that the Emu army was a veritable nuisance, they decided to go behind easy targets. Major Meredith advised his men to run the birds down with trucks that were equipped with machine guns. His plan failed, however, since the Emus were able to spot the trucks coming. They ran and kept a safe distance from the trucks to avoid being hit by the machine guns.
One of the trucks, which was able to catch up with an Emu, ran it over. The Emu became lodged in one of the tires, though, causing it to swerve, hit and demolish a chain fence. The news of the failure started spreading throughout the country and people started agreeing that it was a bad idea.
There were many who were opposed to the idea of killing the birds. When the news of the soldiers failure spread, those who agreed started to support the opposition.
The Emu War, by now, was a total joke due to the press. Although the soldiers had killed more than 300 birds, the press reported the number to be as low as 20. This forced Pearce to stand down from the war, but Major Meredith decided that he would not abandon his people. Pearce ordered Meredith and his troops to retreat but Meredith and two of his gunners stayed out west. They patrolled the fences and shot any bird that came too close to the farmland.
Soon, the birds noticed that the soldiers were less in numbers and they started appearing in larger groups. As the birds were returning, the farmers sent a telegram to Labor Party Secretary George Lambert:
“Gunners withdrawn. Imperative they should stay. Emus beginning to reappear in large numbers,” it read. “Can you do anything?”
Lamber decided to act. He called his friends who were politicians and railed against those who were opposing the war. Lambert was backed up by Major Meredith and the Premier of Western Australia.
On November 11, the second Emu war was approved.
After Lambert’s strong efforts, George Pearce reapproved the Emu War.
“Such strong representations have been made to me that I have approved of the machine gun party returning to the wheat belt to destroy thousands of emus which are causing tremendous damage to crops.”
Meredith and his men learned from their past mistakes and thought of new tactics to take down the birds. His men were able to take down more than 300 birds in just one day. The birds were adapting to the new tactics and began to find ways to avoid them. However, Meredith changed his way of operation often and thoughtfully executed each plan. His men were able to kill at least 100 birds every day. By the time Meredith returned home, he and his men killed at least 3,500 birds. Other farmers who were going through the Emu problem requested the Australian government to send Meredith and his men to their land. Australia was now a laughing stock in front of the whole world, so the government decided to not go down that path.
Three years after the Emus retreated, the country was hit by another drought, which brought the Emu population back to the farmland. Since news agencies lost interest in the topic, the government wasn’t going to spend time and money to kill the birds again. Instead, they came up with a new strategy called the “beak bonus system”. The government offered farmers a bounty for each beak torn out from the corpse of a dead Emu.
It was a huge success. The farmers who were suffering with crops during drought season focused on hunting the birds for some extra income. 13,000 Emus were killed within two months and more than 30,000 beaks were claimed for the bounty.
The government saw that the bounty system wasn’t affordable, so they decided to set up a 135-mile-long “Emu-proof fence”. This brought an end to the raids since it kept the birds out from the farmlands. Although the soldiers had a one-in-ten hit rate, the emus eventually left the region, but only because they ran out of crops to eat. Thus, man had decisively lost the Great Emu War. Nowadays, the emu is an officially protected species. In the end, who won the war? Let us know through the comments section!