The emu war: Australia's forgotten battle against bird kind

"Australia has the unique distinction of being the only country to be defeated by an army of birds."

It was a truly farcical situation, a unit of the Royal Australian Artillery defeated … by a mob of bloody emus.

True!

It happened back in November 1932. Travelling in increasing numbers out of the centre of the continent and ever further into Western Australia, seeking water and finding thoroughly delicious broad acres of wheat, emu mobs (and this seems the appropriate collective for them) thought they’d found emu nirvana. It was estimated some 20,000 to 30,000 big birds descended on the farmers in what had become established as the state’s wheat belt. Strangely, though, the farmers were not keen to share.

A delegation approached local resident, Federal Defence Minister, Sir George Foster Pearce – well, at least when he was at home he lived within a few hundred miles, at Mount Barker – with a demand for protection against the avaricious interlopers. A great number of the long-suffering farmers were soldier settlers whose plight struck a chord with the minister. That worthy, in an endeavour to prove once and for all the bird’s behaviour to be utterly unacceptable, and understanding how a substantial show of force was indicated, agreed to provide army assistance.

He provided a quick response, perhaps with a hope that his men would get some good, active target practice and even provide emu feathers for their unit’s hats.

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Major G P W Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery was despatched with a company of men, a pair of machine gunners with their number twos, two Lewis automatic machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammo. It was a simple matter, really, one species about to show another its level of superiority.

Or not.

Problems arose from the very first day. Major Meredith had his company attempt to herd a mob of the big birds into the range of the guns but it seems emus have a natural understanding of guerilla warfare. They separated into small groups and ran off in different directions. There being no enfilading gunfire, and the gunners experiencing great difficulty hitting surprisingly fleet targets, it seems the birds were able to evade serious damage, managing to regroup and return once more to the fray.

Adding to the officer’s frustration, the Lewis guns both jammed. This happened on a number of occasions during the operation. Later, both again in operation, one of the weapons was even mounted on a truck to give it some mobility. The problem then encountered was that an emu at full pace is far faster and more manoeuvrable than a truck, especially over uneven ground. They simply out-sped the mechanical monster and ran off again to safety.

Another factor proved to be that the birds, even if shot when stopped, were hard to kill, perhaps because of their rounded body shape and hard feather spines. It seemed, almost, that bullets ricocheted off them.

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The company was recalled within a week. They had used a quarter of their ammunition, with the tally of dead birds somewhere between 50 and 200. It had proven a time and cost prohibitive exercise. Meredith noted his men had suffered no casualties. A question was raised in parliament as to whether a medal should be struck signifying (as opposed, one imagines, to dignifying) the conflict; a member from the opposition benches suggested yes, they ought to go to the emus “… who’d won every round so far.” Meanwhile, the Defence Minister gained the dubious distinction of becoming the unofficial Minister for Emu Warfare.

Australia has the unique distinction of being the only country to be defeated by an army of birds.

I think the final word should go to a commentator who quipped, “The question of why, if we are blessed with a native animal that is essentially a cross between an armoured car and a velociraptor, our military has not taken advantage by training emus for combat duty in the ADF, remains unanswered to this day.”

My thanks to ABC Radio for much of the information used in this piece.

Have you ever had a close encounter with an emu?