Toward the end of 1929, the effects of the Wall Street crash had begun to spread across the globe, and the Great Depression was just beginning to take hold worldwide. To help deal with the crisis, wheat farmers in many parts of Australia were encouraged by the Australian government to increase production with promises of cash subsidies to make their efforts worthwhile. Many of the subsidies, however, never materialized, wheat prices remained low, and the situation was worsened by a lengthy and devastating drought in the early 1930s. But as far as many farmers in Western Australia were concerned, the final straw came in 1932—when a mass migration of 20,000 emus began moving westwards from the birds’ breeding grounds inland towards the cooler and more fertile coast. And in their path were Western Australia’s wheat fields.
The emus not only threatened to consume or trample all the crops in their path, but to knock down rabbit-proof fences and drink irrigation channels dry, effectively ruining countless farmers’ businesses for the foreseeable future. In desperation, they turned to their state's senator, Sir George Pearce, for assistance.
Pearce had recently been appointed to his fourth term as Minister for Defence, and after he met with a number of ex-First World War soldiers whose livelihoods were threatened by the birds, he came to an extraordinary decision: The best way to deal with the emus was with machine guns. Pearce took that idea, along with reports of the farmers’ devastating situation, directly to the Australian government. When later questioned in parliament about whether a “more humane, if less spectacular” method of culling the birds could be organized, Pearce responded that it was “no more cruel to kill the birds with machine guns than with rifles.” The decision was made: Australia was to declare war on its emus.
There was, however, a flaw to Pearce’s plan. The ex-First World War machine guns could only be used by military personnel, so Pearce was compelled to hand control of the cull over to Major GPW Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery. Alongside a small deputation of Australian troops, Meredith set out for Campion, 170 miles east of Perth, in October 1932—armed with two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
Although their initial operation was delayed by rainstorms, Meredith and his men finally began their cull on November 2. However, the first battle of the “Great Emu War,” as it became known, was far from a success. Initially, a small flock of around 50 birds was spotted, but they were too far outside the range of the guns, and a few test shots only succeeded in scattering the birds even more sparsely. Later in the day, a second flock was spotted and targeted, with modest success (this time, around a dozen birds were killed), but nevertheless this figure barely even dented the flock’s total numbers.
Two days later, Meredith changed his tactics and set up an ambush at a watering hole close to where a flock of 1000 birds had earlier been spotted. This time, the Lewis gun wasn’t fired until the birds were within a 100-yard range, but after just 12 birds had been killed, the gun jammed and the remainder of the flock escaped before the problem could be fixed. Meredith’s next plan was to mount one of the Lewis guns on the back of a truck and drive it directly at the birds, but the uneven ground made firing the gun while it was moving all but impossible, and the weight of the gun slowed the truck so much that the swift-footed emus simply outran it.
It was soon becoming clear that the emus were a tougher adversary than anyone could have anticipated. One Army correspondent, later quoted in the Sydney Sunday Herald, noted that after the first few attempts:
“Each pack seems to have its leader now—a big black plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach.”
Even Meredith had to concede that the emus made for a tricky opponent. He later compared them to “Zulus,” and claimed that “they can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.” He continued:
“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world.”
By November 8, a total of 2500 rounds of ammunition had been fired—resulting in as few as 50 birds being culled, according to some reports. The Great Emu War had proved a humiliating disaster. Following widespread negative reports in press, and with a laughably small kill-rate of one bird per 50 rounds of ammunition, government support for the operation was withdrawn, and Pearce officially ended the military’s involvement barely a week after it had begun.
But despite the problems the Emu War had encountered—and in the face of increased pressure from his desperate constituents—Pearce gave the go-ahead for further military involvement later the same month, again under Meredith’s command. The Second Emu War lasted until early December, and was initially more successful that the first: Meredith claimed that a total of 986 birds had been killed and more than 2000 wounded (albeit at a cost of almost 9860 rounds of ammunition). But again, the numbers were not impressive enough to warrant the project’s continuation, and military involvement was withdrawn, once more, a month later. When the farmers of Western Australia next requested military assistance, in 1934, it was refused.
Eventually, other solutions were found. A 5-foot-tall emu-proof fence was built across much of the area affected by the birds, and the government went on to introduce a bounty system that rewarded hunters for culling the birds themselves. Despite all these measures, however, the emus continue to win the war: Today, there are almost three-quarters of a million of the birds across all of Australia.