Remembering the Great Emu War

If you read my post last week, you know a bit about emus. They’re large, flightless birds that live in Australia. And around 91 years ago, the Australian government declared war on them.

This week, we’re going to take a history dive into the Great Emu War.

The Background

We can trace the origins of the Great Emu War to the aftermath of World War I. As Australian veterans returned home, many struggled to find work due to various debilitating wounds. The Australian government eventually stepped in with a scheme to help the veterans and, as a bonus, help feed Australia. They took great swathes of the countryside and divided it into small plots for veterans to take residence on as farmers. Even though many veterans had no farming experience, thousands signed up to try to tame the Australian outback. In Western Australia, around 5,000 farms were created, and wheat began to be grown.

But emus don’t care about the farming needs of humans. As they migrated from central Australia towards the western coast, searching for water and food, emus began stumbling upon fields and fields of delicious wheat. All of this food, just ripe for the taking!

And so, emus began ravaging the wheat fields of farmers in Western Australia, with over 20,000 emus eventually ending up in the region. The farmers tried to take care of the birds themselves. Still, they were surprisingly hardy, typically having to be shot multiple times before falling. And, of course, emus had the advantage of overwhelming numbers. Desperate to stop the emu reign of terror, the local farmers petitioned the Minister of Defense, George Pearce, for military aid.

Enter the Army

The Australian government heard the farmer’s complaints and sent in the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery. Led by Major G.P.W. Meredith, the unit consisted of two soldiers (Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Halloran), two Lewis machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.

Two soldiers holding a Lewis machine gun
A Lewis machine gun during the Emu War. Public Domain.

Meredith also brought along a cinematographer to capture what was sure to be a decisive victory for the humans. This would be great PR for the army and prove to the farmers that, yes, the government did hear them and was committed to doing something about the emu problem.

Day 1: The Ambush

Meredith and his unit arrived in Western Australia on November 2, 1932. Almost immediately, they spotted a flock of 50 emus and decided to open hostilities. After having his troops circle the emus and chase them into the range of the guns, Meredith opened fire.

It did not go as expected.

Emus are apparently masters of guerrilla warfare, and the flock quickly scattered. By the end of the day, only a dozen or so birds were confirmed dead.

Humans: 0. Emus: 1.

Edited photograph of with emu head on Civil War general Christopher C. Augur
Photo by JuggaloICP. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 11-02-2023. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Let’s Try Trucks

Meredith would continue to attack the emus with limited success. The birds were quick (remember, they can run 30 miles an hour!) and able to shrug off even serious injury from bullets.

But that didn’t stop the troops from trying to make a dent in the emu population!

Given the emus’ desire for water, Meredith staged an ambush at a dam. As 1000 emus approached the dam, Meredith’s men waited patiently before firing at point-blank range. 10 or 12 emus were successfully felled!!! And then….the Lewis gun jammed, and the rest of the emus escaped.

Meredith then decided to try hunting the birds by truck. By mounting a machine gun to a truck bed, Meredith hoped he could keep up with the quick-running emus. That proved a false hope: the emus easily outran the truck on the Australian outback roads. To make matters worse, the bumpiness of the roads meant that their accuracy suffered. One lone emu victim got tangled in the truck’s steering equipment, causing it to crash and destroy part of a fence.

Day 6: A Tactical Retreat

On November 8, Pearce recalled Meredith and his troops. Less than a week into the conflict, between 50 and 300 emus had been killed. Those casualties came at a heavy ammunition cost: 2500 rounds had been fired.

These losses did little to deter the emus from destroying the wheat fields. After Meredith left, the emus continued to eat their fill of farmers’ wheat. If anything, the presence of the soldiers made them even more cautious. Now, there were often lookout birds who alerted of the others when humans appeared.

Of course, the press was having a field day. Emus were obviously much craftier than mere humans.

Australian soldiers resting by the water during the emu war.
Resting between ambushes. Public Domain.

The Next Month

And so, Meredith and his troops were sent out to Western Australia again on November 13. For the next month, they repeatedly attacked the emu flocks and tried to chase off the enemy. Then, on December 10, Meredith was recalled, and the assault was officially over.

Officials claim that around 100 emus were killed a week during this second assault. The final death toll for the emus was 986 kills, with 9,860 rounds of ammunition used. However, this number is highly debated and likely inflated. It seems very suspicious that EXACTLY ten rounds were used per emu…..

The Aftermath

Whelp, the emus won the Great Emu War. Humans once again underestimated the tenacity of wild animals. And honestly, the emu invulnerability is pretty impressive. Meredith later said about the 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.”

While officials might have claimed victory over the emus, the reality is that they barely made a dent in the 20,000 emus in Western Australia at the time. The birds continued to harass farmers and destroy crops, but the government never again sent help to the farmers. Ultimately, barrier fences and bounties were the best defense farmers had against emus.

And if you liked the story of the Great Emu War as much as I do, I have good news: John Cleese is reportedly making a movie about it.

Emu with open mouth
All hail the victors. Photo by Christian Jansky. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 11-02-2023. Shared under CC BY-SA 2.5.


Australian Geographic

The Collector

Atlas Obscura

History Extra

Scientific American

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