The Battle of Beaks: Australia’s Great Emu War

Written By Angus Harrison

In the twilight of October 1932, the arid dust of Campion, Western Australia, began to stir as Australian soldiers assembled for what would prove to be a rather unorthodox engagement. This was no ordinary battlefield, nor was the enemy conventional. The combatants were men, seasoned and battle-hardened, and emus — the indigenous flightless birds. Thus, the stage was set for one of the most peculiar episodes in military history: The Australian Emu War.

Farmers on the unforgiving Australian land know all too well the relentless trials that their homeland offers. While European cultivators might occasionally grapple with a rodent nesting in their grain or contend with sporadic dry spells, tending the soil in Australia carries its own distinct challenges. It demands resilience against a host of formidable forces, from the punishing heat of a summer sun to the torrents of rain that could potentially drown an entire season’s crop. On the edge of this vast, untamed wilderness, farmers live in constant deference to these immense powers.

In the early 1930s, however, a new adversary loomed over the farmers around Campion, a menace that emerged from the sprawling expanse of the outback. It was not a drought or a flood, but an army of emus. A formidable battalion of approximately 20,000 of these large, flightless birds thundered towards the cultivated fields, a looming testament to the indomitable spirit of Australian wildlife. Thus commenced a war like no other, where the line between the hunter and the hunted blurred, marking the beginning of a strange yet significant chapter in Australia’s rich tapestry of history.

The second largest bird in the world

Standing shoulder to shoulder with ostriches and plying the same ancient lineage, emus hold the distinction of being Australia’s endearing, albeit sizable, avian representatives. Stretching to an impressive stature of approximately two meters, they rank among the world’s loftiest birds, their size only dwarfed by their African cousins. These giant, flightless nomads have evolved to traverse extensive distances on foot, often with the purpose of trailing the transient rains that dot their arid homeland.

Accustomed to a solitary life, emus generally travel in modest bands, their movements dictated by their relentless search for food and water. However, under certain circumstances, their ordinarily dispersed population can congregate into a formidable throng. Such mass mobilization can be prompted by a variety of reasons, perhaps when their numbers surge beyond the carrying capacity of their habitat, or when drought forces them to seek greener pastures.

In the autumn of 1932, such a phenomenon played out on the vast expanses of the Western Australian Wheatbelt. For reasons that remain largely speculative — an overgrown population, a particularly harsh drought, or simply the allure of lush, cultivated fields — a battalion of emus embarked on a migration unlike any other. They set their sights on the rich farmlands, presenting a spectacle of nature that would soon transform into a historical event, a convergence of man and beast that has since been etched into the annals of Australian history as the Emu War.

Trail of destruction

A significant majority of the farmers inhabiting the region had once been brave soldiers. As part of an effort to reintegrate its servicemen into society after the devastation of World War I, Australia inaugurated the Soldier Settlement Scheme. This initiative was a pioneering attempt at post-war rehabilitation, providing war veterans with parcels of farmland as a means to establish new lives.

By 1932, these former soldiers, now custodians of the land, found themselves in the throes of yet another battle, this time against the omnipresent specter of the Great Depression. Economic hardship had already driven them to the brink, and the arrival of the emus only exacerbated their predicament. Like relentless infantry units, the birds descended upon the crops, consuming them voraciously and trampling what they could not consume. Adding to the agricultural havoc, they burrowed through the rabbit fences, leaving gaping holes in their wake.

In response to this escalating crisis, a delegation of former servicemen-turned-farmers decided to seek help from a familiar source — the military. They journeyed to meet Sir George Pearce, a prominent Senator for Western Australia and the incumbent Minister of Defence. Their plea was simple yet profound: they requested military reinforcement to repel the avian invaders.

At the time, the federal government found itself under increasing pressure to be seen supporting the veterans and the economically beleaguered Western Australia, which was ominously contemplating secession from the Federation. Recognizing an opportunity to mollify these tensions, Pearce sanctioned the deployment of World War I Lewis machine guns, effectively transforming the agricultural crisis into a military campaign. In an unexpected twist, he even enlisted the services of a Fox Movietone cinematographer, subtly hinting at the theatrical spectacle that was about to unfold in the tranquil farmlands of Western Australia.

The Australian Emu War begins

Senator Pearce entrusted Major G.P.W Meredith, a seasoned officer from the Royal Australian Artillery, with the monumental task of leading the operation. Armed with an arsenal of 10,000 rounds of ammunition, Major Meredith and his team were dispatched on November 2, 1932, to Campion, situated approximately 170 miles west of Perth. The mission parameters were unequivocal: eliminate the emu threat and collect 100 emu skins, a bounty intended to be repurposed into fashionable ladies’ hats. Yet, unbeknownst to Meredith, these emus had no intention of surrendering their plumage for the sake of human vanity.

On the inaugural day of their deployment, Major Meredith’s men identified a group of about 50 emus lurking in the distance. However, these crafty avian adversaries remained tantalizingly out of shooting range, testing the soldiers’ patience and tactical acumen. With the support of local farmers, an attempt was made to herd the emus towards the well-armed soldiers.

However, these feathered foes demonstrated an uncanny instinct for survival. At the first sound of gunfire, they scattered haphazardly, strategically fracturing their group into smaller units. This unexpected maneuver appeared calculated to make targeting them a much more challenging task. Despite the hail of bullets, only a handful of birds fell victim to the opening salvo. Most managed to escape, their swift, agile movements and inherent survival instincts propelling them beyond the reach of the military’s firepower. Major Meredith soon realized that this war against the emus was not going to be won as easily as anticipated.

Guerilla tactics outwit the army

Australian soldiers operating a Lewis gun during the Australian Emu War (Photo: Wikimedia/Wazee Digital)
Australian soldiers operating a Lewis gun during the Australian Emu War (Photo: Wikimedia/Wazee Digital)

As the operation progressed into its second day, the soldiers found themselves continually outmaneuvered. Displaying an uncanny capacity for evasion, the emus partitioned into smaller, nimble factions that further complicated the military’s ability to target them effectively. Responding to this unexpected adversity, on November 4, Major Meredith shifted his strategy, orchestrating an ambush at a local dam, a critical watering point for the emus. As anticipated, a thousand emus descended upon the dam. Seizing this opportunity, the soldiers let loose a torrent of bullets from their Lewis machine guns. But to their dismay, the firearms malfunctioned after felling only a dozen birds.

Undeterred, Meredith and his crew soldiered on, choosing to relocate south, propelled by reports that the emus in this region were less aggressive. Observations recorded by army personnel, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, noted the social structure of the emu groups, “Each pack seems to have its own leader… a big black-plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warn them of our approach.”

Meredith’s men then experimented with a novel strategy: mounting the machine guns on a truck for mobility. Yet, the rough, uneven terrain of the Australian bushland confounded this plan. The vehicle’s incessant shaking rendered accurate aiming impossible, and its added weight impeded their ability to catch up with the swift-footed emus, capable of reaching impressive sprinting speeds of 30mph.

Commanding officer, Major G.P.W Meredith Meredith, compared the emus to the Zulu warriors who had defeated the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana. (Photo: Flickr/KZN)
The commanding officer, Major G.P.W Meredith Meredith, compared the emus to the Zulu warriors who had defeated the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana. (Photo: Flickr/KZN)

In a moment of reflective admiration, Meredith compared the emus to the Zulus, referencing the legendary African warriors who, half a century earlier, had defeated the British Empire’s professional army in the Battle of Isandlwana during the Anglo-Zulu War.

By November 8, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been discharged, with newspaper reports asserting that only a fraction of the emu population had been eliminated. The unfolding situation, now mockingly referred to as the “Emu War,” had attracted the attention of the Australian Senate. As the government grappled with the potential for international ridicule, they chose to withdraw the gunners. The unlikely victors of this unique engagement were none other than the emus themselves, who’d emerged triumphant against the combined might of human military ingenuity.

Massaging the figures

As the unforgiving Australian summer unfurled, the emus, driven by the relentless quest for sustenance, began to revisit the farms in large numbers. Amidst this escalating crisis, Senator Pearce received Major Meredith’s final report, which documented an unexpectedly high death toll of 300 emus, surpassing initial estimates. Facing mounting dissatisfaction among the beleaguered farmers, Pearce resolved to reinstate Meredith for a second, more rigorous offensive against the unyielding avian invaders.

The subsequent operation heralded a modicum of enhanced success, evidenced by an increased casualty count among the emus. As the campaign gradually diminished in intensity by December, Meredith’s report noted that 9,860 rounds of ammunition had been expended, resulting in 986 confirmed hits. However, this intriguingly exact ratio of one emu per 10 shots provoked speculation about the authenticity of the figures.

Ultimately, the government had to concede that a more pragmatic approach was required to quell the rampant emu crisis. A bounty system was instated, incentivizing local civilians to eliminate emus and present their skins as proof, in exchange for rewards. This innovative tactic proved significantly more effective in controlling the emu population, much to the relief of the tormented farmers. While the emus did face setbacks, the ‘Great Emu War’ has been immortalized as a testament to the tenacity and resilience of these uniquely Australian birds, who proved a far more formidable adversary than anyone had anticipated.

Today, Campion is but a spectral vestige of its past, with abandoned houses succumbing to the relentless ravages of time and weather, their desolation mirroring the adversity they once faced. But what of the indomitable emus, the unlikely combatants of this unprecedented war? They persist, still haunting the arid landscapes of Western Australia, an enduring symbol of an extraordinary chapter in the nation’s history.