The Great Emu War

16939014_418934118448676_5238347523182136791_nYes, I am actually referring to the bird.

Following World War I, large numbers of ex-soldiers from Australia and Britian took up farming within Western Australia. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, these farmers were encouraged to increase their wheat crops, with the government promising but failing to provide assistance in the form of subsidies. Wheat prices continued to fall, and by October 1932 matters were becoming intense. The farmers prepared to harvest the season’s crop while simultaneously threatening to refuse to load the wheat.

The difficulties facing farmers was increased by the arrival of as many as 20,000 emus. Emus regularly migrate after their breeding season, heading to the coast from the inland regions. With the cleared land and additional water supplies being made available for livestock by the West Australian farmers, the emus found that the cultivated lands were good habitat, and they began to flock into farm territory. The emus consumed and spoiled the crops, as well as leaving large gaps in fences where rabbits could enter and cause further problems. Farmers relayed their concerns about the birds ravaging their crops, and a deputation of ex-soldiers were sent to meet with the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. Having served in World War I, the soldier-settlers were well aware of the effectiveness of machine guns, and they requested their deployment. The minister agreed, although with some conditions attached:
1. The guns were to be used by military personnel.
2. Troop transport was to be financed by the Western Australian government.
3. The farmers would provide food, accommodation, and payment for the ammunition.

Pearce also supported the deployment on the grounds that the birds would make good target practice. However, it has also been argued that some in the government may have viewed this as a way of being seen to be helping the Western Australian farmers.

Military involvement was due to begin in October 1932. The “war” was conducted under the command of Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, with Meredith commanding a pair of soldiers armed with two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The operation was delayed, however, by a period of rainfall that caused the emus to scatter over a wider area. The rain ceased by November 2, 1932, at which point the troops were deployed with orders to assist the farmers and, according to a newspaper account, to collect 100 emu skins so that their feathers could be used to make hats for light horsemen. The men traveled to Campion, where some 50 emus were sighted. As the birds were out of range of the guns, the local settlers attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but the birds split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult to target. Nevertheless, while the first fusillade from the machine guns was ineffective due to the range, a second round of gunfire was able to kill “a number” of birds. Later the same day a small flock was encountered, and “perhaps a dozen” birds were killed.

The next significant event was on November 4. Meredith had established an ambush near a local dam, and more than 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time the gunners waited until the birds were in close proximity before opening fire. The gun jammed after only twelve birds were killed, however, and the remainder scattered before more could be killed. No more birds were sighted that day.

In the days that followed Meredith chose to move further south where the birds were “reported to be fairly tame”, but there was only limited success in spite of his efforts. At one stage Meredith even went so far as to mount one of the guns on a truck: a move that proved to be ineffective, as the truck was unable to gain on the birds, and the ride was so rough that the gunner was unable to fire any shots. By November 8 just six days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired. The number of birds killed is uncertain: one account claims just 50 birds, but other accounts range from 200 to 500—the latter figure being provided by the settlers. Meredith’s official report noted that his men had suffered no casualties. Representatives in the Australian House of Representatives discussed the operation. Following the negative coverage of the events in the local media, that included claims that “only a few” emus had died, Pearce withdrew the military personnel and the guns on November 8.

After the withdrawal, Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus and commented on the striking maneuverability of the emus, even while badly wounded. After the withdrawal of the military, the emu attacks on crops continued. Farmers again asked for support, citing the hot weather and drought that brought emus invading farms in the thousands. James Mitchell, the Premier of Western Australia lent his strong support to renewal of the military assistance. Additionally, a report from the Base Commander indicated that 300 emus had been killed in the initial operation.

Acting on the requests and the Base Commander’s report, by November 12 the Minister of Defence approved another attempt of military efforts. He defended the decision in the senate, explaining why the soldiers were necessary to combat the serious agricultural threat of the large emu population. Although the military had agreed to loan the guns to the Western Australian government on the expectation that they would provide the necessary people, Meredith was once again placed in the field due to an apparent lack of experienced machine gunners in the state.

Taking to the field on November 13, 1932, the military managed to kill 40 emus. By December the guns were accounting for approximately 100 emus per week. Meredith was recalled on December 10, and in his report he claimed 986 kills with 9,860 rounds, at a rate of exactly 10 rounds per confirmed kill. In addition, Meredith claimed 2,500 wounded birds had died as a result of the injuries that they had sustained. Despite the problems encountered with the cull, the farmers of the region once again requested military assistance in 1934, 1943 and 1948, only to be turned down by the government. Instead, the bounty system that had been instigated in 1923 was continued, and this proved to be effective: 57,034 bounties were claimed over a six-month period in 1934.

By December 1932, word of the Emu War had spread, reaching the United Kingdom. Some conservationists there protested the cull as “extermination of the rare emu”. Dominic Serventy, an eminent Australian ornithologist, described the cull as “an attempt at the mass destruction of the birds”.