Australia’s Military Once Fought a War Against Birds. And Lost.

20,000 invaders launch an attack on Australia’s heartland. The farms surrounding Perth are under siege and the enemy is formidable. They pillage and devastate the livelihoods of the farmers – who are dammed to a life of poverty and hardship. Calls for the Australian military to defend its citizens against these menacing enemies take root.

To defend its citizens against birds.

Big flightless birds. 

Emus.

1. The Problem 

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War – which ended in 1918 – many Australian ex-soldiers were given loans by the government to start farms and settle down. Sadly for them, these farms were to be established in the country’s harsh west – which didn’t have conducive conditions for farming. 

To add to this, in 1929, Wall Street crashed, leading to what is now called the Great Depression. To help make food cheaper for unemployed Australians, the ex-soldiers were told by the government to increase theirwheat crops, in return for subsidies. Not only was that promise broken, wheat prices also plunged in 1932.  All of this took a direct toll on the income of farmers – who now struggled to make ends meet. 

In the midst of this hardship, another problem arose. Up to 20,000 Emus started to migrate to the areas occupied by the farmers. Usually, after their mating seasons ended, Emus headed to the coast, away from the farms in the inland regions of western Australia. However, this time around, the emus found that the newly cultivated lands were great for habitat, with much food and water. They consumed and spoiled the farmers’ crops, and left large holes in rabbit fences. This meant that rabbits too started to eat and desecrate the crops.

This was the last straw for the farmers – who realised the need for government assistance. Being proud ex-soldiers, a delegation of the farmers went straight to the Minster of Defence, Sir George Peararce — instead of meeting the Minister for Agriculture. Their request was rather peculiar: deploy machine guns to shoot down the marauding birds. Their logic? Machine guns were effective in inflicting damage on a large scale during the First World War. Obviously, a bunch of big birds with no trenches or weapons, would be much easier. 

The minister was hesitant at first, but then agreed with a few conditions attached: the cost of the ammunition would be paid for by the farmers, the guns could only be used by military personnel, and that farmers would provide for food soldiers fighting the emu war

While the minister’s decision sounds ridiculous, there were some rational reasons for funding the war on emu. Firstly, during this period, many in Western Australia – where the farmers were from – wanted to break away from Australia, and form their own country. They felt that the Australian federal government neglected development in the Western parts of the country, which contributed more to federal funds than it got back. Showing that the government is willing to help struggling farmers in the west, would have been a PR win.  This is probably why a film crew from Fox Movietone was enlisted to follow the soldiers around. Secondly, Pearce also supported the deployment on the grounds that the birds would make good target practice for the soldiers. 

He was soon to be proven wrong. 

2. The Contenders

Emus

The second-largest living bird in the world by height – after the ostrich – the emu is ironically Australia’s national bird. It is featured on the country’s coat of arms and has long been a part of aboriginal Australian culture.

One of the most important things to note about the Emu is that it is fast. Their legs are among the strongest of any animal and powerful enough to tear down metal fencing, or get them to run at speeds of up to 48 km/h (30 mph). Even though the birds are flightless, they have small wings, measuring around 20 cm. They flap these wings when running as a means of stabilising themselves when moving fast. They also have a highly specialised pelvic limb that allow them to take larger strides. 

In other words, the emu’s body was engineered for speed and strength. 

The Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery

Sir George Peararce tasked Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery to eliminate the Emu menace. Meredith took two soldiers – Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Hallora – with him. 

They were given two Lewis machine guns, which proved their worth during the First World War.  It was truly an innovative weapon for its time – firing up to 600 rounds per minute and inflicting never-before seen damage in the war. Usually, machine guns needed crews of up to six men. The Lewis put these capabilities in the hands a single soldier.  

3. The War 

The gunners arrived in Western Australia in early October 1932, expecting an easy and quick victory. To their surprise, the emus were smarter than they thought.  On the first day, when Meredith ordered farmers to flank the emus and lure them into the firing line, they fled into the treeline instead. The soldiers shot anyways – leading to only a few emus being injured. 

The emu’s intelligence seemed to be a recurring theme. A local newspaper reported

“Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black plumed bird, standing fully six feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal and dozens of heads stretch out of the crop… The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic.”

Speed was also another factor:

“Travelling at nearly 30 miles an hour and bearing more feathers than flesh, the birds make almost impossible targets for the Lewis gunners, though the gunners are experts at ranging.”

To counter this, Meredith came up with a brilliant plan: mount one of the guns on a farmer’s truck. This too soon failed as the weight of the machine gun made the truck unstable, and the ride rough. Not a single shot was fired from the back of the truck, but, a farmer did manage to use the vehicle to run over a slow emu. Great news, until you realise that the emu smashed through the truck and tangled itself in the steering wheel. The truck then ran off the road and crashed into a fence. 

In the first six days of the war, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired. Estimates for confirmed dead emu ranged from 50-500.  An interesting thing to note here was that in Meredith’s official report back to the capital, he noted that his men (all two of them) “had suffered no casualties”. Considering that his adversary was a large bird, I doubt that this constitutes a victory of any sort. 

Bad press coverage and the ineffectiveness of the campaign led the government to withdraw the military personnel and the guns on 8 November. This was less than a month after deploying them.

4. We Need to Build a Wall. To Keep the Emu Out. 

After the withdrawal, Major Meredithexpressed his admiration for the enemy:

“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.”

July 1953. A news report on the  The Sunday Herald.

Back in Western Australia however, the emus continued to wreak havoc on crops. So much so that the farmers requested military assistance in 1934, 1943 and 1948, only to be rejected. Instead, a bounty system was constituted, where farmers could claim rewards for killing an emu. This was way more effective, with over 57,034 bounties claimed in the first half of 1934 alone.

In 1953, the government also announced an exclusion barrier fence – a fence that is meant to keep pests and unwanted animals out – built specifically for emus. The fence was almost 5ft tall and spanned 77 miles across Western Australia.

These measures proved way more successful than waging a war against birds.

A war that the Australian military lost. 

Featured image by Australian Geographic.

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