The year is 1932, the place, the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, the enemy? Maurauding gangs of………..large flightless birds called Emus.
This episode recounts the tale of the Great Emu War. A military operation undertaken in Australia during 1932 in response to thousands of Emus destroying crops in the Campion district of the Western Australian Wheatbelt.
Some background. Following the first world war, large numbers of veterans were given land grants by the Australian government to take up farming. By the early 1920s, more than 23,000 people had taken up the offer. In Western Australia, more than 5,000 soldiers were working farms taking up almost 9 million acres. It was incredibly hard work. It was lonely, expensive and many were suffering from what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Times were tough but got tougher in 1929, when the Great Depression hit, this was followed by a drought, then a massive drop in the price of wool and wheat. By the end of 1930, a third of the new farmers had were destitute and had walked off the land. The Australian Prime Minister James Scullin, promised WA farmer subsidies and a guaranteed price for their crops. Scullin however couldn’t get this measure through parliament and the WA farmers never got their subsidy and felt betrayed giving oxygen to West Australia’s secessionist impulses.
To contribute to this perfect storm of hunger, anger, resentment and betrayal came …….the Emus, the Velociraptors of their day.
Emus were attracted to farms by virtue of their crops and trees and dams, so food and water. The damage they caused made borderline viable farms, unviable. In 1922, the WA state government reclassified Emus from protected species to vermin and they were hunted and killed but by 1932 the Emu population had exploded. They were not only ravaging crops and farms they also destroyed the newly constructed Rabbit Proof Fence exacerbating the damage.
Desperate, local farmers sent a deputation to the Minister for Defence George Pearce, who happened to be touring the state in an attempt to keep people from voting ‘Yes’ in the impending 1933 Secession referendum.
Pearce saw an opportunity. If he could be seen to be helping WA farmers in general, that might woo Western Australians away from Secession. So Pearce agreed to deploy the Army against the Emu scourge with conditions: the farmers had to accommodate and feed the soldiers, provide their transportation, and pay for ammunition: ten shillings per kill. Pearce also supported the deployment on the grounds that it would be a good training exercise and sensing the propaganda value a cinematographer from Fox Movietone was enlisted to document the campaign..
On the 2nd of November 1932 local farmers got word that the fighting force they had been asking for would be arriving on the train from Perth.
The vaunted military force consisted of……three men. Major Gwynydd Purves Wynne-Aubrey Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery’s 7th Heavy Artillery Battery, Sergeant S. McMurray, Gunner J. O’Halloran, two Lewis Light Machine Guns and one aforementioned cinematographer.
Meredith and his men had a daunting task. There were 20,000 emus versus Meredith and his machine guns.
On 2 November, the men travelled to the town of Campion, where some 50 emus were sighted. As the birds were out of range of the guns, the locals attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but the wily birds split into small groups and proved difficult to target.
The next significant event was on 4 November. An ambush was established near a local dam, and more than 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time the gunners waited until they saw the whites of the Emus eyes before opening fire but the machine gun jammed and the flock scattered.
At one stage a machine gun was mounted on a truck, but couldn’t keep up with the birds, Emus can get up to 50km an hour and the ride was so bumpy that the gunners couldn’t aim properly. By 8 November, six days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired and the number of birds killed was likely exaggerated but reported to be between 50 to 500, quite vague. Meredith’s official report noted however that his men had suffered no casualties.
“The Emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. 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 up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.“
The campaign and its lack of success started to attract bad public relations and was openly mocked, especially in the Eastern states. Defence Minister George Pearce earned the mocking title ‘Minister for the Emu War and Meredith and his men were subsequently recalled on the 10th November.
Major Meredith continued with his frustrated diary entries clearly believing he wasn’t faced with any normal Emus, but…….super Emus:
“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. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop“.
Despite this poor showing the Defence Minister again was approached for more support against the dreaded Emus. He agreed but promptly transferred responsibility for the operation to the Western Australian Premier, James Mitchell.
Major Meredith was unleashed once again and during the last two weeks of November, the soldiers reported they killed more than 700 Emus and wounded 2,500 and exhausted their supply of ammunition. By the time Meredith was withdrawn again on the 2nd December, there were almost 1,000 emus casualties.
In assessing the success of the cull, an article in the Coolgardie Miner on 23 August 1935 reported that ‘although the use of machine guns had been “criticised in many quarters, the method proved effective “
The Great Emu War ended ignominiously. By December 1932, word had spread, reaching the United Kingdom where some conservationists there protested the cull along with eminent Australian ornithologists, who described the “war” as “an attempt at the mass destruction of the birds”.
The war did not help swell support for the Federal government in WA. In the referendum of 1933, 66.23% of the people of WA voted to secede from the Australian Federation. But the secession was ruled invalid on a technicality and as a consequence the desire for independence still burns brightly in the hearts of many Western Australians.
In 1934, the farmers lobbied once again for federal aid against the Emus which was not forthcoming. The WA government subsequently put a bounty on the heads of the Emus and between 1945 and 1960, an estimated 285,000 birds were killed in WA alone. Financially, the Emu Wars were a failure too. Hundreds of soldier settlers fought their ‘war debts’. Some did it by simply walking off the land. Others, like soldier settler Daniel O’Leary, wrote open letters, in his case to the Agricultural Bank. He thought he should be paid for:
“bashing out the brains of such of the enemy wounded as could be found after each engagement’ and for ‘victualling His Majesty’s troops“
Despite the problems encountered with the cull, the farmers of the region again requested military assistance in 1934, 1943, and 1948, only to be turned down by the government.
The Emu War has penetrated popular culture. There are three film projects on the subject. Two featuring some awesome Australian comedians and the other, luminaries such as John Cleese and Deuce Bigalow Male Gigalo Rob Schneider. Not exactly Meryl Streep and Sir Ian Mckellan but still.
You can view some footage and some excellent documentaries on the Great Emu War on Youtube or Google.