The emu, a large flightless bird, is one of the national symbols of Australia. They weren’t, however, always seen as a harmless symbol of national identity. In the past, they were seen as pests threatening the livelihood of farmers who had to live alongside these animals.
In 1932, the Australian government took a heavy-handed approach to dealing with the problem and called in the military. What happened next would be known as the Great Emu War.
The story of the Great Emu War goes back to the First World War and the treatment of veterans returning from the front. For Australia, the First World War would be the deadliest conflict it had ever experienced, with Australian deaths surpassing even those that would be experienced in the Second World War.
The disaster that was the Gallipoli campaign represents a bloodbath for Australia and is remembered in Australian memory in very much the same way as the Somme is remembered in Britain or France. Over the course of the war, Australia sustained around 210,000 casualties, of which 61,519 were killed or died from their wounds. For a country with a population of under five million people, these were devastating losses. Many veterans returned home with gruesome, debilitating wounds that prevented them from finding work.
The government’s response was abhorrent, to say the least. It offered no aid to its injured heroes returning from the horrors a world away, but after the reality of Gallipoli became known to the Australian public, the demands for the government to take action increased.
Under this pressure, the government eventually devised a scheme that would not only help the veterans but also help feed Australia. The countryside was divided into small plots of land, and veterans were encouraged to become farmers. Many thousands took up the challenge, but it was almost completely doomed from the start. In most areas, the soil was terrible. There was the constant worry of vermin. The veterans had little to no experience in farming. And each plot was only around 10 acres, which was hardly enough for subsistence, let alone for providing any kind of profit. Nevertheless, many thousands were settled across the country.
Around 5,000 were settled in Western Australia, where wheat was the crop most suitable to the conditions. And it was in this area that the problems with the emus arose.
Australians have had a long history of interaction with the emu. Sometimes regarded as pests and sometimes regarded as wildlife to be proud of, the emu suffered the fickle moods of the Australian government, which classified them as vermin, then as a protected species, and then as vermin again.
In 1918, increasingly large flocks of emus began to ravage the farmlands of Western Australia, and by 1922, their protected status was dropped, and the government classified them as vermin to be exterminated.
The local farmers took up arms and tried in vain to discourage the emus from eating and trampling their crops. Emu numbers, however, were overwhelming, and the birds were surprisingly hardy. A single bird generally had to be shot several times before it realized it had been shot.
The emus, however, were only one of many problems. The farms had been a complete disaster. By the mid-1920s, it was clear that the farm scheme had been a failure. Tens of thousands of farmers had been plunged into hardships and poverty while producing very little food.
Alcoholism and incidents of suicide skyrocketed under these miserable conditions. Wheat prices collapsed throughout the decade, and in 1929, the American stock market crash, which led to the Great Depression, hit Australia worse than it did the United States. An already collapsed wheat price suddenly halved, and Australia’s unemployment rose to 32%. Then a drought hit. A quarter of all the resettled farmers in Western Australia threw up their hands and walked away. They had had enough.
Australia still, however, needed the wheat. Prime Minister James Scullin announced a subsidy for these farmers, only to withdraw the promise upon harvest season. Then he announced another subsidy, but before it could be enacted, he lost the following election, and the new prime minister, Joseph Lyons, promptly canceled the subsidies.
To make matters even worse, the emus had destroyed sections of the Rabbit-Proof Fence, allowing the additional threat of rabbits to pour through.
The drought wasn’t just hard on Australia’s farmers. Wildlife was suffering too. In search of food and water, an army of 20,000 emus migrated into the farming areas around Western Australia, doing particularly bad damage to the crops and structures around Chandler and Walgoolan.
With farmers appealing to the government for help, the Defence minister, George Pearce, sent an army of three men. Major Gwynydd Purves Wynne-Aubrey Meredith was in command of the operation. Joining him in the field were Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Halloran.
A cinematographer from Fox Movietone accompanied the team to document what was expected to be an easy victory.
The Shooting Begins
The Great Emu War began on November 2, when the Australians spotted advance elements of the emu horde and sprang into action. With the assistance of the local farmers, they attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but contrary to what they expected, the birds did not stick together but scattered, making them difficult targets. Later in the day, after encountering a small flock, the Australians tried again, but with similar results.
Two days later, Meredith and his team had painstakingly prepared an ambush at a nearby dam. They waited in silence as a battalion of around 1,000 emus approached the water. At virtually point-blank range, the Australians opened fire, but after a few rounds, the Lewis machine gun jammed, and the emus managed to escape with relatively few casualties.
It is difficult to assess the emu losses, as the animals tended to run away before dying from their wounds. By the third day, only around 30 emus had been killed. From an army of 20,000, this was hardly a dent.
The next few days also saw limited success. The emus responded to the danger and split into smaller groups, each with one tall emu on the lookout while the others continued the destruction. Meredith and his men mounted their Lewis machine gun on the back of a truck, but this proved ineffective as the ground was too rough for both the truck to gain a speed advantage and the gun to be accurate.
The Australian soldiers, of course, had help from the local farmers who tried to herd the emus. A truck was brought in and used to ram and run over the birds. One emu got its head stuck in the steering wheel, causing the driver to panic and crash the truck.
On November 8, amid bad press and poor performance in the field, Meredith and his team were withdrawn.
The official report states that around 300 emus were killed in the operation.
The emus continued to destroy crops, while the Premier of Western Australia, James Mitchell, added his voice to those of the farmers, demanding a renewed attempt to drive the emus off. The Great Emu War was set to continue.
On November 13, Meredith and his team were deployed to Western Australia again. The attacks continued, with claims of around 100 emus being killed per week. On December 10, Meredith was recalled, and the operation was over. The commander claimed 986 kills with 9,860 rounds used, with a further 2,500 dying of injury. This figure, however, is highly disputed and is likely to be very inflated.
Australian ornithologist D.L. Serventy noted,
“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.”
The Aftermath of the Great Emu War
Despite the claimed success of the cull, the emus continued to destroy crops. The farmers’ rifles were inadequate in dealing with the problem, and they requested government assistance again in 1934, 1943, and 1948, only to be refused each time.
The problem with the emus was slowly solved with barrier fencing.
Despite no emus being present to sign the document, a truce was declared in 1999 when emus were declared a protected species.
The Great Emu War captured the imagination of the Australian people, and it quickly became a source of great amusement as the media reports framed it as a series of comedic capers that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Looney Tunes cartoon.
Behind it, however, was the suffering of many thousands of farmers who lost their livelihoods and became destitute. It was a serious matter in the end, and no matter how comical the “war” was, many people became homeless and struggled to survive. Many emus, too, lost their lives.
In modern times, the Great Emu War has entered pop culture. The internet is full of memes that turn this episode of history into a great joke, as it is a source of particular pride and embarrassment to the nation of Australia. The story has gained even more traction in recent years, and in 2023, a film of the events, written by John Cleese, entered production.