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

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.