In the years following World War 1, the Australian Government struggled to find things for their veterans to do upon returning home. From 1915, a ‘soldier settlement scheme’ began to be rolled out across all states, and eventually it saw around 5,030 ex-soldiers given plots of land, which they were to convert into working farms, primarily to cultivate wheat and sheep.
By September 1920, the government had purchased 90,000 hectares for the veterans, but still needed more, and started to place the remaining soldiers in some pretty marginal areas of Perth in Western Australia. This made things tough, because setting up a prosperous farm with little to no experience in a good area is no small feat, let alone in an area where the land is barely useable. The veterans were put under even more pressure when the Great Depression hit in 1929, causing wheat prices to plummet. The government promised subsidies for wheat, but those subsidies never came.
There was also the problem of tens of thousands of West Australian emus that wanted their land back. Emus had been a protected native species up until 1922, when they’d made such a nuisance of themselves on the wheat farms – flattening crops, eating them down to a stub – that they were officially reclassified as ‘vermin’. The emus consumed and spoiled the crops, as well as leaving large gaps in fences where rabbits could enter and cause further problems. By late 1932, there were 20,000 of them wreaking havoc on the marginal wheat farms of the beleaguered veterans, and even these men, trained riflemen, who killed thousands of the birds, could not put a dent in their numbers. Bounties were put on their beaks, but with no great success.
The veterans couldn’t get access to the ammunition they needed, so they called on the Australian military to take action. Led by Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, the army set out on 2 November 1932, determined to gun down a group of 50 birds in the district of Campion. They moved in formation behind the birds and opened fire. The birds scattered in all directions and suffered minimal casualties.
Two days later, concealed gunners sighted 1,000 emus nearby, and waited patiently for them to make their way over. At point-blank range, the soldiers open fired, felling maybe 10 or 12 emus, and then the machine-gun jammed. The emus scattered once again.
The media had a field day, quoting one of the recruits as saying: “The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”
The army tried gunning them down in moving trucks, but found they couldn’t aim properly at the fast disappearing birds. A lone victim rendered himself a nuisance all the way to the end – his corpse getting tangled up in the vehicle’s steering equipment, which caused it to veer off and destroy half a length of somebody’s fence.
On 8 November, it was reported that Major Meredith’s party had used 2,500 rounds of ammunition – twenty-five per cent of the allotted total – to destroy 200 emus. When one New South Wales state Labour politician enquired whether ‘a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war’, his federal counterpart in Western Australia, responded that they should rightly go to the emus who ‘have won every round so far’.
After the army’s withdrawal, Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus and commented on the striking manoeuvrability of the emus, even while badly wounded. ‘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. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop’.
A second campaign was mounted by Major Meredith on 13 November 1932, killing 40 emus. About a month later it was reported that 100 emus were being killed every week. Even so, Meredith did the maths and concluded that it took around 10 bullets to bring down one emu, which was a pretty dismal effort. He was recalled and the Great Emu War had finally come to an end.
Despite the problems encountered with the cull, the farmers of the region once again requested military assistance in 1934, 1943 and 1948, only to be turned down by the government. Instead, the bounty system that had been instigated in 1923 was continued, and this proved to be effective: 57,034 bounties were claimed over a six-month period in 1934.
Now, the gangly bird that takes its place of pride on the Australian coat of arms with the kangaroo, has had its status as a protected animal reinstated. The emu population around Australia is estimated to be around 600,000 to over 700,000, and nationally they’re classified as ‘of least concern’.