The Great Emu War of 1932
The year was 1932, in the Campion District, on the dry infertile sand plains of Western Australia.
World War 1 had finished in 1918 and some of the returning soldiers were allocated land to farm wheat, in what at best could be described as marginal land, periodically too dry for cropping. Then in 1929 came the Great Depression and wheat prices fell, while promised government crop subsidies didn’t materialize.
Come October 1932, as these hard-pressed farmers were about to harvest their wheat crop, 20,000 emus appeared on the horizon!
The Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae is a large flightless bird, it is nomadic moving to more moist coastal areas in summer. They are omnivorous, eating plant material and insects including caterpillars, and occur throughout Australia but prefer grasslands and open forests.
The introduction of water troughs for stock grazing and clearing country for grain cropping greatly benefitted the emu and increased their population numbers.
Large numbers of emus would have consumed and damaged much of the wheat crops and also broke and left holes in the rabbit proof fences, furthering damage to the wheat.
These farmers were ex-soldiers and well remembered the effectiveness of machine guns and so petitioned for their deployment, to the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. Sir Pearce readily agreed to send two Lewis guns, military personnel and troop transport, with the farmers to supply food and accommodation. Some members of the government were said to encourage the deployment as a way for the government to be seen to be helping the Western Australian farmers.
The Great Emu War was conducted under the command of Major G. P. W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, commanding Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Halloran, armed with two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Unfortunately, rain fell which scattered the emus, so operations were postponed until the 2nd November. Orders were given to assist local farmers and kill 100 emus in order to use the feathers to make hats for the Light Horsemen.
About 50 emus were sighted near Campion but they were outside of the Lewis guns range. Local people tried to herd them closer to the soldiers but the wily emus split up and ran off.
Two days later Major Meredith established an ambush site near a local dam and then over 1,000 emus were seen, heading right towards them. Meredith is thought to have said, “don’t shoot until you can see the whites of their eyes”. When the emus were very close, no white in those eyes, the gunners started firing, 12 emus dropped dead but then the gun jammed! The emus knew they had been ambushed and scattered again, no more emus were seen that day.
By the fourth day Major Meredith had moved south hoping to find more emus, but his efforts had limited success. Army observers reported that each small group of emus seemed to have a tall dark feathered bird, 6 feet in height, keeping watch while his mates carried out their destruction and he warned them of the soldiers getting too close, surely a military impression of a male bird with his females and young.
The soldiers tried mounting one of their Lewis guns on a truck but the truck couldn’t catch the emus, they run pretty fast, and the ride was so rough the gunner couldn’t fire.
After six days the soldiers withdrew, reporting 2,500 rounds having been fired with 50 emus dead. Local farmers reported between 200 and 500 emus killed but by this stage local media coverage was negative, and official reports said only a few emus had died.
But the emus still attacked the crops and farmers requested military help once more and again Major Meredith was in the field. This time with more success, his men were achieving 100 kills per week, killing 986 birds by the time of their recall in early December 1932.
The local farmers called upon the government for military help in 1934, 1943 and 1948 but were declined. Instead, the government introduced a bounty system which was much more effective with over 57,000 bounties claimed in 6 months of 1934.
From the 1930s and onwards exclusion barrier fences have proved to be a more effective crop protection than shooting.
According to the International Union Conservation Nature, IUCN, the conservation status of emus is classed as ‘least concern’ with populations estimated to total between 625,000 to 675,000 in Australia (Emu, 2021). So I think we can say the emus won, I really hope so.
Habitat destruction is still their greatest threat but in ‘The Great Emu War’ habitat modifications by humans of water troughs and wheat grain food source helped improve the emus survival chances, even against Lewis guns and a bounty system.
Australia Had a Full-Blown War Against Emus and Lost (2021) Thoughty2 (189) Australia Had a Full-Blown War Against Emus and Lost — YouTube
Emu (2021) Emus — Bush Heritage Australia
Emu War (2021) Emu War — Wikipedia
Johnson, M. (2006). ‘Feathered foes’: Soldier settlers and Western Australia’s ‘Emu War’ of 1932. Journal of Australian Studies, 30(88), 147–157.
Sun Herald (1953) 05 Jul 1953 — New Strategy In A War On The Emu — Trove (nla.gov.au)