A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost

William McLaughlin - October 20, 2017

Yes, you read that right, and you may have heard of this interesting piece of history before, but here is the full story. To clarify, there was no official declaration of war, but soldiers were mobilized and sent out with machine guns to fight against Emus, and contemporary politicians and reports often dubbed this engagement a “War” with an emphasis on the quotes.

While this sounds outrageous, there were a couple of good reasons and some terrible ones as to why British troops got involved, and no major wars were occurring so troops could be spared to fight the mighty Emu “armies.”

While Australia started as a penal colony, the massive amount of land soon became the retirement goal of many Brits. Even though the land wasn’t always the best quality, a retired soldier could snag quite a hefty chunk of it, significantly more than he could in England. Many former troops settled around Campion in Western Australia, about as far inland as you could get before hitting desert.

It was a tough living for the farmers here, made even more difficult by demands for wheat to feed the starving victims of the Great Depression. The government promised subsidies for farmers to grow extra wheat for food, but the price of wheat plummeted and promised subsidies never came.

The farmers were at their wit’s end, but they would still have more hardships to come. What the farmers didn’t know was that they were about to be visited by one of the worst plagues of pests since the rabbit invasion.

Furius Farmers, a Cheap Government, and Some Hungry Birds

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
The devastation caused by emus was serious, it could have easily led to local poverty and starvation, even rioting and rebellions. Wikipedia

Australia had an invasion of rabbits brought by the first fleets to set up the penal colonies, made worse by settlers bringing rabbits to hunt for sport. Rabbits were an invasive non-native species that were extraordinarily well suited to the climate, and while there were plenty of natural predators, the rabbits had enough food to outbreed any threat.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
A political cartoon in response to a proposal to build a rabbit-proof fence across Australia. The media was in fine form during this and the subsequent Emu War. Wikipedia

In response to the exploding rabbit population devastating crops and eroding topsoil, a massive rabbit-proof fence was erected that extended over 1,000 miles north to south, coast to coast, with another 1,000 miles of forked-off fences. This fence combined with rabbit hunting, wide-scale poisoning efforts and other containment methods to give farmers some room and safety to grow.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
The rabbit-proof fence is still there to this day. it did nothing to stop the emus in the 30’s. Wikipedia

The equation changed when the emus began migrating. Generally, after their mating season, emus would migrate to the coast where there was access to more food and water. On their way, the emus noticed that these farms around Campion had plenty of food and even water. Why bother going to the coast when they had all that they needed.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
The Emu is slender, but with long, powerful legs tipped with sharp claws. Wikipedia

The Mighty Emu

Yes, emus are just birds, surely, they just needed to be treated like any other pest, right? Well, not when there were 20,000 of them descending on Australian farmland. An emu weighs around the same as an adult human, and they have deceptively powerful legs with large, sharp claws. In short, emus could and occasionally did attack and seriously wound or humans. Their powerful legs also easily tore gaping holes in the rabbit fences, reintroducing hordes of rabbits.

Finally having enough, the farmers petitioned the Western Australian government to do something. Their response was so bizarre that the contemporary media couldn’t get enough of it. A small group of soldiers was sent in with machine guns with the purpose of stalking up to emu flocks at watering holes and gunning them down.

The machine gun, a Lewis Gun, was still a new and impressive weapon of war, and the thought was that huge swaths of birds would be taken out at a time, both culling the numbers and giving farmers a substantial demonstration that their government was doing something to help them.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
The Lewis gun was an impressive weapon at the time, being mounted on tanks and planes with a glowing service record during WWI. Wikipedia

The first wave of a handful of troops was unsuccessful, but farmers wanted something to continue, so reports of hundreds of dead emus began circulating, prompting a second wave to be sent in. the army reportedly argued that the “war” would be good target practice for troops in a period of relative peace, running targets and practical experience with machine guns.

The argument that it was a propaganda move to appease the farmers holds more weight as a cinematographer was hired and films were made glorifying the “war” and exaggerating its success. A last excuse to go forward was for the army to collect emu skins and feathers to use for the uniforms of British cavalry.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
A Lewis gun crew hoping to get a few more feathers for their hats. Pinterest

As it turns out, this comical plan was a great case of “easier said than done” Emus are used to being prey, and so default to running and scattering in the face of danger, and a firing machine gun sounds dangerous enough. Emus also have one of the worst body types for shooting.

A round body is the only viable target, too high or low and the slender neck and legs are very unlikely to be hit. At 150 pounds with dense feathers, some emus could even survive a shot or two in the right circumstances.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
A collection of articles from Australian newspapers. Images from the National Library of Australia

Emus Victorious?

The second attempt saw the same amount of hilarity. At some point during the engagements, the men thought it was a good idea to mount the machine gun to a truck and chase the birds down. They soon discovered that emus can run over 30 mph and no vehicle could drive that fast in the Australian bush and still offer a stable firing platform.

At one point, a machine gun team successfully set up an ambush were over 1,000 emus congregated at extremely close range. Fortunately for the emus, someone forgot to clean the gun and it jammed after only a few seconds of fire leaving only a handful of dead instead of the anticipated hundreds.

By the time the troops and machine guns were pulled out, an estimated 3,000 emus were killed at the cost of about 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and zero human casualties. This amounted to about 15% of the invading Emus and ultimately didn’t solve the plight of the Australian farmers.

That amount of ammo amounts to thousands of dollars today, but likely far more than in a time of relative peace and during a terrible global depression. With little real success, media deemed the war a comical failure and successive requests by the farmers for machine guns or troops were denied over the next decades.

In the end, the best, but still imperfect solution was more and stronger barrier fencing. This, combined with a government-sponsored bounty system where anyone could turn in an emu for a reward, allowed the farmers to continue a meager living in some of the most difficult Australian lands.

A Great War: Australia Went to War Against Emus…and Lost
The CBH Group formed in response to the difficult farming conditions. in the 2016-17 season they hauled 16 million tonnes of grain with almost 4 billion in revenue in 2015. Wikipedia

Small towns now dot the war-torn landscape that hosted the Emu War. During the 30’s a company formed to better handle the collection and sale of the vast and scattered farms in Western Australia. That company, the Co-operative Bulk Handling Group, is still in business today, ensuring steady and reliable income for the WA farmers. Wheat farming is still a big business, but rabbits are still a never-ending problem, and the occasional flock of emus can still cause some problems.