October 12, 2023

How Australia lost a war with emus


While numerous parts of the world are ensconced in tragic wars right now, a war in Australia’s past offers a stark distinction with some levity.

In 1932, a massive migration of emus wrought havoc on the country’s farmlands, deeply damaging the country’s wheat supply and more. Twenty thousand emus descended on Western Australia in migration, almost decimating farmlands that provided much-needed wheat and supplies to Australia.

Farmers were unable to stop them from eating their crops after the birds descended on their territory, which some say was rightfully the emus’. In desperation, the farmers continuously called on the government for help. They implored the government to send ammunition or take military action — most of them were ex-soldiers themselves, according to Scientific American

After World War I, veterans had nowhere to go and no jobs to fill, so the Australian government provided them with plots of land to farm. More than 5,000 soldiers took to Western Australia to try their luck at farming. But the area’s land was difficult to farm and after 1929 low prices resulting from the Great Depression put additional strain on the farmers. According to Scientific American, subsidies for wheat were promised but never fulfilled.

Now the emus had descended and things were worse. For those who are unfamiliar with the emu, it is a large flightless bird native to Australia. The species is even featured on the country’s Coat of Arms. Before 1922, it was a protected species. 

However, when the emus took over the farmland, they started to be seen as vermin. The soldiers-turned-farmers continued to beg for ammunition to help fight the birds, since they had difficulty obtaining it themselves during the Depression.

At the same time, the Australian government was under pressure to show that it was giving other World War I veterans something to do. So the idea to declare war against the emu in Western Australia arose. According to Australian Geographic the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery was assigned the task, with Maj. G.P.W. Meredith as its commander.

The country set out to conquer the birds and save its merchant business, and it did so with machine guns.

As a major animal lover myself, I found the story hard to digest at first. But it gets humorous when it becomes obvious that the Australian army had failed against its flightless foe.

Despite being considered pests, the emus turned out to be incredibly resilient. They displayed remarkable speed and agility, making them difficult targets for the soldiers. They also proved to have difficult-to-pierce skin, leaving one soldier to say that they need to be shot in the back of the head with their mouths closed or through the front with their mouths open, according to an article in The Guardian.

As a result, the soldiers struggled to effectively reduce the emu population. Only a few dozen were dead the first day despite thousands of soldiers shooting at thousands of emus. Some soldiers claimed the emus had even elected leaders to facilitate evacuations.

The next day the Seventh Heavy Battery tried again and waited for thousands of emus to enter an area in range of a set up a machine gun. Thousands of birds swarmed the area, perfectly in range, but the gun  jammed. Quickly, the enemy caught on to the gambit and took off, successfully avoiding their human foes and relocating. Another strategy to mount a machine gun on a truck failed when the vehicle could not keep up with the birds, according to Australian Geographic.

Newspaper reports at the time make the war even more humorous, with reports of emus holding their territory firm.

“No treaty of peace has been concluded, and the emus remain in possession of disputed territory,” said an article in The Daily News from Perth on Nov. 9, 1932. “It is, therefore, expected that regular military operations will be followed by guerrilla warfare, which may continue for years and may be accompanied by stories of horrible atrocities. The emu commander is maintaining a studied silence as to his future plans, but it is understood that he is much impressed with the capacity for resistance shown by raw troops and confident that they will continue to uphold the best traditions of the race. He is credited with the intention to arrange for a suitable poem to commemorate the emu glory on the field of Campion.”

Some progress was made as the war raged on for two weeks. However, Meredith estimated even when they were successful, it cost 10 bullets for every emu taken down. Troops were eventually recalled. No human soldiers were killed. A total of 2,500 rounds of ammo was spent but only approximately 200 emus were killed.

After the soldiers returned home, federal labor parliamentarian A.E. Green was asked if the troops would receive a medal. He replied that any medals should go to the emus.

Regrouping, the government decided that the farmers would be given ammunition to fight for their own farms. After that, 57,034 emus were killed over the course of six months in 1934.

They even instituted a bounty on the emus in the decades that followed, which resulted in 284,700 killed in Western Australia from 1945 to 1960, and the crops were saved.

Luckily today, the emu population is stable and classified as “of least concern,” with about 600,000 to over 700,000 in population. They are again a protected species, although encroaching human activity is threatening some population areas.

If the story sounds too much like the plot of a movie, it is in fact true, but it will also be covered in two upcoming films. One short, risque comedic film, “The Emu War,” produced by Umbrella Entertainment, will premiere on Oct. 22. It takes some liberties with the plot line. A feature-length film is also in development, written by John Cleese, according to The Guardian.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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