What Was the Emu War?

(Last Updated On: November 8, 2019)
What Was the Emu War?

In 1932, the military was sent to Western Australia to begin a campaign against a particularly destructive foe. That year, some 20,000 emus were said to be running amok in the region, spoiling crops and destroying property. To combat these large, flightless birds, which are indigenous to the continent, the army equipped themselves with machine guns. This led the media to dub the incident, the “Emu War”. 

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Historical Background

After World War I, the Australian government had trouble finding employment for ex-soldiers, so they encouraged veterans to take up farming by offering them land in Western Australia. After the Great Depression of 1929 caused a global financial crisis, these farmers were asked to increase their wheat crops in return for government subsidies. 

If an economic decline wasn’t enough to deal with, these wheat farmers also faced challenges growing crops in the drought-filled and marginal farmland of Western Australia. And in October, 1932, these difficulties were only exacerbated by the arrival of some 20,000 emus. 

Emus are known for migrating after breeding, typically moving towards the coast from inland regions. But with land cleared in Western Australia, and with water irrigation networks quenching the soil, emus soon found this cultivated land to be a pretty good place to live. 

The arrival of these large birds quickly caused concern for farmers. Emus ravaged wheat crops and broke fences, leaving crops susceptible to even more critters. Farmers brought their concerns to the government. And being World War I veterans, they suggested taking care of the problem by using machine guns. The Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, agreed, but felt that active military members should be deployed to take care of the issue.

The Great Emu War

On November 2, 1932, troops under the command of Major G. P. W. Meredith traveled to Campion in Western Australia, where a flock of emus had been sighted. When his men arrived, however, the birds were out of range, so locals tried to herd them into an ambush. As they did this, the emus split up into smaller groups, running around and proving to be very difficult targets. The first series of shots fired at them was ineffective. A second round killed a few, but by days end only a dozen or so emus had been destroyed. 

A couple days later, Meredith tried another ambush near a local dam. This time, some 1,000 emus had been spotted, and were heading towards them. The gunner waited until the birds were close before opening fire. But even with such a large swath of birds, the soldiers were only able to kill about a dozen more because they scattered so quickly. 

The results of the first couple attempts to quell the emu uprising would be indicative of how this operation would go. Over the next month, thousands of rounds of ammunition would be fired. And while the total death count is uncertain, estimates put the total of dead emus somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred. 

Meredith’s official report of the conflict noted that his men suffered no casualties. But despite that, the emus proved to be smarter and faster than the soldiers had anticipated. Meredith and his men would ultimately withdraw due to lack of success and negative media coverage.

Australia might have won the battle, but the emus won the war.

The Aftermath

The Emu War would lead Perth-based ornithologist Dominic Serventy to comment:

“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.”

Major Meredith would go on to rave about the military prowess of his feathered foes:

“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.”

Even though the Emu War had more or less been a failure, farmers continued to request military assistance against the emus throughout the decades to follow. They were all turned down by the government. 

After the 1940s, however, the emu situation would improve. This was thanks in large part to exclusion barrier fencing, which proved to be a popular, effective, and more humane means of keeping emus out of farmland. 

And humans and emus have been able to live in relative peace ever since.

This isn’t the first time animals have been at the center of a war. Need proof? Check out these other articles from the Sporcle Blog.

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.