Australia cannot lay claim to any great empires or epic conquests, but we do have one distinction that no other nation on Earth can boast: we are the only country in history to lose a war to birds - Emus to be specific!
Australia's Emu War, also known as the Great Emu War, was a nuisance wildlife management military operation undertaken in Australia over the latter part of 1932 to address public concern over the number of emus said to be running amok in the Campion district of Western Australia.
The unsuccessful attempts to curb the population of emus, a large flightless bird indigenous to Australia, employed soldiers armed with Lewis guns—leading the media to adopt the name "Emu War" when referring to the incident. While a number of the birds were killed, the emu population persisted and continued to cause crop destruction.
Controlling the emu population was difficult for farmers - Just shooting at them wasn’t especially helpful; unless the shooter got the emu right in the head, it was as likely as not to walk it off and go back to eating the crops.
Like the dinosaurs that they are, emus bleed slowly. Like herbivores, they have large gut tracts that occupy most of their body cavity, making a one-shot kill to a vital organ unlikely. Like birds, they have a large coat of feathers that disguises their real body dimensions and makes it likely the shooter will aim too high or too low to inflict an effective wound. Plus, there were thousands of these things all over the place.
So the farmers of Western Australia, fed up with the 20,000 emus that kept dropping in to their farms to eat all their crops, went to defence minister Sir George Pearce to demand he take action to safeguard the precious wheat of the Campion region.
Pearce, a man who knew the value of a show of strength, decided that what the emus needed was a hefty dose of good old-fashioned military might.
And so Major GPW Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery was sent, along with two soldiers, two Lewis guns, and 10,000 bullets, into the scrubland to show the emus just who was the more highly-evolved species.
Almost immediately the expedition ran into trouble. The soldiers attempted to herd the emus into a suitable place in which to mow them down en masse, but the birds, well-trained in guerrilla tactics, continually split into small groups and ran off in different directions, making it damnably difficult for the guns to draw a bead on them. Also, the guns jammed.
Emus are the second largest living birds behind the ostrich. A group of emus is called a mob. With their great size and strength, an emu mob could be frightening!
When the guns did work, and when an emu stood still long enough to shoot at, they proved resistant to bullets to an unsettling degree. Meredith wrote:
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.
The soldiers retreated, weary and sick of the sight of feathers. Meredith's official report noted, optimistically, that his men had suffered no casualties. The emus' report noted that humans were slow-moving and stupid.
The House of Representatives debated the matter and questions were asked of the minister regarding whether medals were to be awarded for survivors of the campaign.
Interesting Emu War Facts: 1-10
- The Great Emu War was a fierce battle between the machine gun armed Australian soldiers and the large Emu birds. Yeah, yeah, you read it right! It was a war between the Emus and the Australian soldiers
- It was after WWI that many British veterans and Australian soldiers picked up farming in Western Australia.
- Then came the Great Depression of 1929 when the government of Australia asked the farmers to increase their production of wheat and promised to pay subsidies for the same. As expected, the government failed to keep the promise.
- Increased production, no subsidies – the result was a steep and continuous fall in prices of wheat and by October 1932, the farmers prepped up for harvesting the crops but at the same time refused to load the wheat.
- As if the problems weren’t already enough, in an unfortunate twist of events, an awfully big flock of 20,000 Emus descended down towards the coastal areas into the cultivated lands.
- This migration of the Emus from inland to coastal areas was a result of their post-breeding-season hunt for fresh water and significant food supplies.
- The Emus went on a rampage and ate the crops and destroyed the fields. As if they weren’t happy with what they did, they even left gaps – large gaps in fences, giving easy entrance to rabbits that brought down further destruction.
- Sir George Pearce agreed but gave conditions – (a) only military personnel will be handling the machine guns, (b) the Western Australian Government will be financing the troop transport and (c) ammunition payment, accommodation and food will be the responsibility of the farmers. Yet another reason why the minister agreed was that the killing Emus will help with target practice.
- Military involvement was supposed to start in October 1932 but heavy rainfall delayed the operation and troops were deployed on November 2, 1932. The troop actually included 2 soldiers carrying 2 Lewis Automatic Machine Guns along with 10,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition.
The question of why, blessed as we are 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.
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