Hidden History: The Great Emu War

Technews Writer
Fri Mar 23, 2018

The inhospitable nature of the Australian outback has slowed the progress of the continent’s settlement for centuries, to the point that the hostile nature of Australia’s wildlife and overall geography remain an ethnic joke among many circles. As will be shown in this installment of Hidden History, it would seem that the tenacity of Australia’s true natural inhabitants are even capable of resisting outright military conquest, as was shown in The Great Emu War of 1932, wherein armed Australian soldiers with automatic Lewis machine guns where unable to best a herd of flightless indigenous birds.

            The Great Emu War of 1932 has its origins in World War I (WWI). Following the war’s end in 1918, a large number of Australian and British ex-soldiers sought farming opportunities in the regions of Western Australia. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and subsequent decline in wheat prices placed external pressure on these struggling farmers, but the worst of their woes was yet to come.

             The second largest living bird by height, the flightless Australian emu can grow up to over six feet in height and run at speeds of over 30 miles per hour. Regularly, as many as 20,000 emus will migrate to the Australian coastal regions from inland after their breeding seasons. However, with the cleared land and accessible water sources created by West Australian farmers, many emus found that these farmlands were good living habitat. Thousands of emus settled on these farmers’ lands, consuming farmers’ crops and destroying their fences (leaving gaps large enough for rabbits to enter and cause further crop damage).

            Concerns over the hordes of emus eventually made its way to Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. After a meeting with a detachment of ex-soldiers from WWI, Sir Pearce (somehow) left the meeting with the conclusion that the use of machine guns would effectively solve Australia’s emu crisis. With the agreement that Western Australian farmers would finance the operation and provide food and accommodation to the soldiers involved, the Great Emu War officially began.

            Right from its inception, this war would be met with inconvenience after inconvenience. First, the operation’s original start date in October of 1932 had to be delayed because of heavy rainfall causing the emus to scatter, not ending until November 2. On this day, attempts by local settlers to herd the emus into an ambush proved ineffective as the emus continued to split into smaller groups, all running in various directions. Numerous rounds of gunfire proved ineffective, and a dozen birds (at most) were killed.

On November 2, another ambush was set for a group of over 1,000 emus. Having learned from the prior mistake, the soldiers waited until the emus were well within range before firing. After only twelves birds were killed, the machine gun in use jammed, and the remaining emus scattered before any more could be killed. No more emus were spotted by the Australian military that day.

In the days following, Australian soldiers noted that the small flocks of emus seemed to adapt to the military’s involvement, splitting into smaller, less trackable groups and warning each other to scatter upon detecting soldiers. At one point, a machine gun was even mounted on the back of the truck, but this too proved ineffective as the emu flocks were able to outrun the vehicle and the terrain was so rough that accurate machine gun fire from the back of the truck proved impossible.

Australian ornithologist Dominic Serventy offered the following colorful commentary on the war: “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.”

            Having failed to substantially cull the population of emus, the Australian military officially withdrew on November 8, with Major G.P.W. Meredith even conceding that “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.”

            And so that is the story of how a modern developed military with access to automatic weaponry still lost a war to a flock of flightless birds. Perhaps some portions of the wilderness are just never meant to be tamed by man.




Appears in
2018 - Spring - Issue 10