originally published May 28, 2013
For most nations, the years between the two World Wars was a time of boom and bust, a time when the economy trumped politics on the tips of citizens’ tongues. And when the call came for a new generation to pick up arms and fight for the cause, they were refreshed and ready, either too young to have battled the Kaiser or well-rested and eager to bring the fight to the Fuhrer.
But on the other side of the world from anywhere, in a land where women glow and men plunder, the Australian armed forces were still healing from a conflict less than a decade old. It was a dark time, as much of the world was still trying to claw their way out of an economic cave-in, but when Aussies grimly honored their duty and served their country, whatever the cost.
It was the Great Emu War of 1932.
Cue the music.
We open on a barren wheat farm near the coast of Western Australia. It’s October, and already the weather is stifling and oppressive. This was the site of the first bloodshed, the first casualty of this inevitable war. Only the blood was not that of a human, nor was it even the blood of an emu. It was the blood of wheat. Wheat which was plucked before its time.
After the final chimes of World War I had sounded, a number of veterans settled in these lands, setting up farms within the wide open frontier. When the 1929 stock market crash decimated the agricultural economy, the farmers needed help. They turned to their government, and their government promised them subsidies if they’d crank up the wheat volume to eleven. The farmers planted like hell, at which point their elected officials backtracked. No cash for crops; the money wasn’t there.
That’s when the emus showed up.
While the farmers were talking dollars with guys in suits, roughly 20,000 emus wandered out of the hills, fresh from mating season and looking to cure a case of the munchies. It was near Campion and Walgoolan where they emerged from their inland winter pads and set about munching on wheat. Lots of wheat. Then they’d leave holes in fences through which rabbits would pop in and cause even more damage.
The farmers, desperate now just to get market value for their labor, subsidies aside, pleaded for help. Sir George Pearce, the Minister of Defence, agreed to send a squadron of machine gunners, so long as the Western Australian government put up the cash for transportation, and the local farmers gave up food and accommodation for the troops, and paid for the ammo. Enter Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Army.
Major Meredith and his troops set out on November 2, 1932. They spotted their prey immediately, but the emus were out of range. Locals tried to herd them into an ambush situation, but these were highly-trained guerilla emus. They scattered in small groups as Meredith’s men fired wildly into the air. “A number” of birds were killed, according to the report. The fact that Major Meredith was no more specific than that doesn’t bode well.
Two days later, the Major had established an ambush at a local dam. Over 1000 emus were heading toward them – it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Or like shooting emus in a much, much larger barrel. The gunners waited until the birds were at point-blank range; they risked getting seriously pecked in order to make certain they could take down as many of these bastards as possible. Still, partly because of gun jamming, only a dozen were killed as the flock quickly dissipated. The ambush was a bust.
Over the ensuing days, Major Meredith moved south. He tried mounting a machine gun on a truck, but the emus ran faster than the truck, and the vehicle’s cruddy suspension – back then, truck suspensions were manufactured solely from steel rods and pure hope – meant that the machine gunner could fire with little accuracy. After six days of brutal warfare, over 25,000 rounds of ammunition had been spent. No one knows precisely how many of the enemy were taken down. One report states the number was around 50.
Negative media response to the military engagement prompted the House of Representatives to kill the operation on November 8. But the warm weather was only fueling the invasion, drawing more and more birds toward the coast and into the bevy of free food in farmers’ fields. Responding to pressure, the Minister of Defence once again ordered Major Meredith back into battle.
Meredith was resolved not to be beaten once again. He had learned his enemy’s tactics, and he felt confident his team could do the job. It was only a matter of time. And bullets. A veritable shit-ton of bullets.
Over a brutal month, Major Meredith and his men learned the emu mind. They saw through emu eyes and they came to understand the depths of the emu soul. By early December, they were claiming roughly 100 emus per week. By the time the Major was recalled on December 10, he boasted a ratio of ten rounds of ammunition per emu kill, with over 2500 birds having died from their injuries. Even better news was that the human casualty number was zero. Somehow these incredible fighting men triumphed over the fourth-largest bird in the world. The machine guns may have helped.
By Major Meredith’s numbers, the Great Emu War had successfully culled roughly 10-12% of the enemy. The emus who survived no doubt learned a lesson, and I’m sure they were considering this lesson with great wisdom and critical thought as they continued to devour the hell out of local farmers’ crops. Locals requested assistance again in 1934 and were refused, as they were in 1943 and 1948. For whatever reason, the government didn’t want to go to war once again with emus.
Conservationists around the world were less than impressed by the Australian government’s willingness to organize a military operation against a bunch of freakishly large birds. But this was a mission of mercy for the working man (and woman), a valiant effort to ease the economic hardship at the heart of the nation’s agricultural belt. Shouldn’t we learn from this botched exercise? What if they have been plotting all this time, intending to regroup and wipe us all out?