There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, pour yourself a glass of something good and take mental notes as we look at the first and only continent-wide military operation against the second-tallest bird species in the world.
The enemy emerged from the tree line and marched towards Gunner O’Halloran’s concealed position. Many of the nearly 1,000 soldiers stood over six feet high. They were strong and fast, and they’d ravaged Western Australian farms and ranches for hundreds of square miles.
O’Halloran tightened his grip on his Lewis gun, a WWI-era light machine gun chambered in .303 British. The enemy soldiers were within range, but he didn’t fire. Previous skirmishes had taught him to be patient, and he wanted to take down as many of the long-legged legionaries as possible.
Finally, when they were within 100 yards, he pulled the trigger. The first volley took down about 12 combatants, but then the unthinkable happened: the Lewis gun jammed. O’Halloran’s men struggled frantically to get the gun back in action, but it was too late. The enemy fled, leaving more than a pillow’s worth of black and gray feathers in their wake.
So went the second skirmish in Western Australia’s Great Emu War of 1932. The Great Emu War is perhaps the world’s only officially sanctioned military operation against a native bird species, and the total campaign went about as well as that initial foray.
Why would the Australian military launch an all-out war against one of its own animals? The troubles started with a post-WWI-era program intended to help returning soldiers start their own farms. This “soldier settler” scheme sounded good in theory. But in practice, it was a disaster, especially in the arid farmland of Western Australia.
By the early 1930s, Western Australian settlers were trying to eke out a living as wheat farmers faced a trifecta of drought, plummeting commodity prices, and rabbit infestations, according to historian Murray Johnson. Johnson is an honorary research senior fellow in history at The University of Queensland, and his 2006 article published in the “Journal of Australia Studies” is the most authoritative account of the Great Emu War.
Emus frequently migrate towards the Western Australian coast after breeding in drier inland areas. But they don’t move during regular intervals like mule deer or elk. They move based on where they can find food and water, and they’ve been known to follow rain-bearing clouds for hundreds of miles to find resources.
So, when as many as 20,000 emus descended on the wheat fields around Campion and Walgoolan, just east of Merredin, the former soldiers hatched a scheme born of desperation.
“Recalling their experiences of war, they determined that there might be one means of destroying the hordes against which they were faced,” Murray writes. “A deputation of soldier settlers accordingly waited on the federal Minister for Defence, Sir George Pearce, in Perth, requesting machine guns to launch a counter-attack.”
It’s unclear why the Australian military decided this would be a good idea. Pearce didn’t inform the Military Board in Canberra before giving the go-ahead, so there’s that. Murray also points out that the contingent tasked with mowing down Emus was accompanied by a cinematographer. Pearce may have hoped to use the “Emu War” as a PR campaign to demonstrate to the disgruntled wheat farmers that the government was, in fact, doing something.
Whatever the reason, Major G. P. W. Meredith was put in charge of the troops on the ground, and the campaign commenced on the morning of November 2, 1932.
They arrived in Campion and immediately spied a flock of 40 to 50 emus. Sergeant McMurray and Gunner O’Halloran brought the Lewis guns to bear, but they soon realized that the flock was well out of range. Meredith tried to have some of the soldier settlers circle behind the birds and drive them towards the machine guns, but the birds, as Meredith would discover time and again during the course of the next few weeks, didn’t comply with being massacred.
The emus scattered into the nearby trees, and while the Lewis guns were able to take out a few birds at 1,000 meters, most of them escaped.
Meredith had imagined going toe-to-toe with massive herds of emus, but the birds almost never gathered in such large numbers. Instead, Meredith was forced to set up ambushes around water sources and wait for smaller groups to arrive. This tactic netted about 200 birds by November 8 (according to Meredith), but the soldiers used 2,500 rounds of ammunition to do it.
That bullet-to-kill ratio didn’t sit right with the bigwigs back in the Australian parliament, and the “Emu War” was being panned in the media. The machine gunners were recalled, and Meredith was forced to account for how he was bested by the gangly, flightless birds. His reason? The damn birds didn’t stay still.
“It must be realised that an emu full out can do 45 miles per hour, consequently the target is, after the first burst, a very rapidly moving one, and is only visible for a very short time,” he complained in a letter to his superiors.
Emus often select a lookout to warn the flock of danger, and even when the soldiers did manage to sneak within rifle range, the birds could take a hit. Meredith reported seeing a bird run a half-mile while mortally wounded, and he once compared the birds to tanks.
“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world. They could face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks,” he wrote.
While Meredith had reason to embellish the abilities of his enemy, he also had reason to be impressed. He spoke with one farmer who told him that after chasing down an emu in his truck, the farmer found five bullets in the bird’s body “which had evidently been there since the first operations.”
Despite the military’s initial lack of success, the emus continued wreaking havoc on the area’s already fragile wheat fields. Meredith reported that the damage had “to be seen to be believed.” The birds totally flattened crops over large areas, and a field that previously returned six bags per acre only returned two bags.
So, “Meredith and his merry men” (as the newspapers had taken to calling them) found themselves back in Campion just five days after their first retreat. Murray reports that this second campaign “fared only marginally better.”
They killed about twenty birds the first day, but by this time the birds had become extremely wary. The emus had figured out the effective range of the Lewis guns, and they often stayed just beyond it.
Fortunately, the continued drought made the birds “frantic for want of water,” according to Meredith. Sitting near water sources proved to be the most successful strategy, and by December 2 the major reported that they were killing about 100 birds every week.
The farmers may have been grateful to remove even that small percentage of the total population, but the success was mixed. “It is highly probable,” Murray reports, “that the machine-gunners actually exacerbated the crop losses, for every time the guns were able to open fire the birds scattered widely, trampling the maturing wheat as they desperately sought cover.”
A 1953 newspaper account of the emu problem reported that the birds trample 100 plants for every one plant they consume, making their feet, rather than their stomachs, the real danger to wheat crops.
When the wheat crops had finally been harvested and the Great Emu War ended on December 10, 1932, Meredith reported the enemy casualties at 986 birds.
The major called these “definite kills,” but strangely (and conveniently), 986 was exactly 10% of the number of bullets used in the war (9,860). This allowed Meredith to claim one kill for every ten rounds of ammunition, which he called an “extraordinarily high percentage.” He might have also called it “an extraordinarily unlikely coincidence,” and the world may never know for sure exactly how many emus fell during those weeks.
The war against the emus continued in subsequent decades, but the military was never again dispatched to the field. The soldier-settlers found that rifles were far more effective deterrents, and 284,704 birds were killed in Western Australia between 1945 and 1960.
Despite those casualties, it's safe to say that the Aussies lost the Great Emu War. But we may all be better for it. Unlike passenger pigeons, bison, and wolves, emus managed to thrive alongside agriculture and settlement, and the Great Emu War lives on in pop culture adaptations.
A 2021 short film didn’t quite make it off the ground (but they did make a trailer!), and John Cleese has supposedly signed on to star in an action-adventure comedy called “The Great Emu War.” Whether that film ever makes it from the writer’s room to the big screen is anyone’s guess, but it’s already more successful than the war it plans to depict.