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, hegives 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.
If you’ve ever been down St Kilda Road here in Melbourne you might’ve wondered what the beautiful dark grey building just near the National Gallery is. Although, the guns, and possibly the prominent signage and the words on the signage might indicate to you that it’s something to do with the military. It’s Victoria Barracks and it was originally the home of British Imperial Garrison troops and their families.
It was named in honour of Queen Victoria and construction began in 1856 and finished in 1872. 16 years, a pace of construction that would no doubt impress the building industry today. The most prominent and well known part of the barracks is called A-Block. For architecture aficionados A-Block is built in a Neo-Renaissance style out of Victorian bluestone. It housed the British 12th and 40th Regiments of Foot, the East Suffolks and 2nd Somersetshires respectively, elements of which previously took part in the fighting at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat. In 1870 when these and other British regular troops left Australia it became the home of the Victorian Colonial Forces.
The Southern Wing of A-Block became the home of the British Commander in Chief of Australian colonies until 1866 when a separate residence ‘The Grange’ was constructed a just a short distance down the road.
After federation in 1901 it continued its military purpose. It housed the department of Defence through the great war and into the second world war when it was the location of the Australian Government War Cabinet Room. This is where all major decisions regarding Australia’s wartime operations between 1939 and 1945 were made. In addition, it was also the headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the Australian Military forces General Sir Thomas Blamey.
Postwar, life got quiet for Victoria Barracks as it reverted to its role as the administrative HQ for army units in Australia up until1958 when the Department of Defence moved to Russell Offices in Canberra.
As interesting as the history of the building itself is, It’s what’s here at the front of Victoria Barracks that most grabs my imagination. Adorning the front lawn are four cannon captured from Britains various enemies on display. These are physical links to amazing moments in history and if I can paraphrase Australian singer songwriter Kate Cebrano, old guns are my weakness. When you are facing the building from St Kilda Road, on the left there is a Turkish 5.9inch howitzer.
It is gun number 956 made by the German firm Freidrich Krupp AG in 1916, as is evidenced by the markings on the breach block. You can find out more about Krupp guns by downloading the Boer War Memorial episode, but in the broad strokes, Krupp was an armaments firm who were the first to make steel cannons for the Prussian army.
It has a plaque which reads “Turkish 5.9 Inch Howitzer captured on 8th November 1917 by the Australian Mounted Division near Huj during the offensive against the Gaza-Beersheba Line which culminated in the occupation of Jerusalem”.
This is the campaign dramatized in the classic Australian film ‘The Lighthorsemen’ : (LIGHTHORSEMEN EXCERPT)
Another great account of war in this theatre is “With the Ninth Light Horse in the Great War,” written by Major T.H. Darley. Here is an extract:
The Turks had taken up a very strong position, supported by many guns, and the Yeomanry Brigade were seen to form a line, and with drawn swords, make a most gallant charge over the broken ground, in the face of heavy rifle and shell fire.“A” and “B” Squadrons (9th LH) continued to push on, and the right flank patrol, under L.-Cpl. Bennett, gained Nebi Huj where, after shooting down the escort, they captured two 5.9 howitzers
One of these guns from Major Darley’s account may well be number 956, but it’s not certain as other Turkish guns were captured by different units that day.
Here on the right there is another Krupp cannon, a Model 1910 21 cm Mortar. It is classified as a mortar but it’s actually a heavy howitzer which could fire a short, fat 114KG projectile about 9km. It was a short range, in-direct fire weapon that was used to lob shells over obstacles and the walls of fortifications.
This example was captured after an attack launched on September 18 , 1918 by the Australian 1st and 4th divisions on the Hindenburg Line. September 18 is also my birthday which is perhaps why I feel such an affinity for the gun, us both being Virgos. The Hindenburg Line was a major German defensive position made up of four parallel parts: the outpost line which is what the 1st and 4th divisions attacked, the main Hindenburg Line and the Le Catelet and Beaurevoir lines. It too has a plaque which reads:
“German 8INCH HOWITZER. Captured on 18th 19th September 1918 near San Quentin during the attack by the 1st and 4th Australian divisions A.I.F on the Hindenburg Outpost Line.”
There are two more guns on display. They flank the front doors of the building and are twin Russian 36 pound naval cannons. The Cyrillic lettering on their sides indicate they were cast in 1838 at the Alexander Factory in Petrozavodsk in North West Russia. They were captured by British forces during the Crimean War, a conflict fought during 1853 and 1856 between England, France, the Ottoman Empire and Mediterranean superpower…Sardegna, against Russia.
In early 1855, after a protracted siege of the Crimean city of Sevastapol, the British and French forces overcame the Russian defenders and captured over 4,000 artillery pieces. In celebration of the victory it was decided to distribute a pair of cannon to each of the most important cities in the British Empire – including Gibraltar, Quebec, Dublin, Auckland and Melbourne.
The cannon weren’t just sent for display. Parts of some captured Russian cannon were removed and the metal used to create the Victoria Cross, the highest Commonwealth military award for valour. The metal that remains from the original cannon is kept in a British Army vault and it’s estimated that there’s enough left for about 80 medals which were and are still made by Hancock’s Jewelers in London.
In 1858 8 Russian cannons were dispatched to Australia. Two are located in Centennial Park in Sydney and another two in Adelaide. One each are in Hobart and Launceston respectively and the final two are sitting right here on St Kilda Road watching the scarves go by.
If you’d like to know more, some great references are the website of the Australian Light Horse Association, Google them or visit our website for the link also check out the classic Australian film: The Lighthorsemen, it features a pre-Baywatch Peter Phelps…very striking. Conversely If you want your appetite whet for the Crimean War, read ‘Flashman at the Charge’, for some risqué historical fiction by the brilliant writer George Macdonald Fraser.
I hope you enjoyed this episode, so if you’re visiting Melbourne or live here and you’re walking past Victoria Barracks, Take some time to appreciate the beautiful architecture and the amazing artifacts that are sitting just a few meters off St Kilda road.
The Australian Lighthorse Association – http://www.lighthorse.org.au/