After the First World War, Australian veterans were given land to farm in Western Australia. In late 1932, the increased irrigation, the cleared and cultivated land, and the not-yet-harvested crops proved to be an attraction for emus. Emus are large flightless birds indigenous to Australia, and only slightly smaller than an ostrich. In October 1932, great feathered hordes of emus descended upon the farms of the Wheatbelt region in their annual migration from the coast to the interior.
The emus ate the crops, trampled the land, destroyed property, and made a horrible cacophony that was enough to wake the dead. Angry Diggers attempted to fend off the invaders, but these direct descendants of dinosaurs seemed to absorb rifle shots, and scattered before they could be brought down. Moreover, the farmers’ fences proved no obstacle to the avian menace, and provided infiltration points for fences’ original targets: rapidly breeding and garden and crop annihilating rabbits and dingos.
In late October 1932, a section from the Royal Australian Artillery under command of Major GPW Meredith with a few Lewis guns was ordered to stop the Emu Menace. However, rains prevented Meredith’s operations from commencing. Despite Mother Nature, on 3 November Meredith attacked. Meredith found great flocks of emus, perfect for slaughter by the machine guns. Unfortunately, emus did not act as soldiers did assaulting trenches in the First World War. As soon as Meredith’s Lewis guns opened fire, the emus scattered. In the great flocks of hundreds, the soldiers managed to kill only a few.
Most distressingly, the emus reformed out of contact and continued their pillaging and brigandage of the farms. Meredith would find them, set up, kill a few, and frustratingly have to repeat the process as the emus evaded. He attempted to ambush the emus at a dam where the emus congregated in the evenings for a drink, but even this proved futile as the emus just found other places to patronize. Within a few days, the emus stopped traveling in great numbers and dispersed into the countryside in smaller groups. Furthermore, each small group seemed to have a leader, an alpha emu that usually stood over six feet with “a great dark plume” who watched over his emu flock, and warmed of the soldiers’ approach. Meredith attempted to motorize his firepower by bolting the guns on automobile hoods, but unlike the biplanes of the First World War, a moving vehicle jostling about the countryside was not a stable firing platform. On 8 November, the disconsolate Meredith withdrew from the area of operations.
After the farmers complained to their representatives in the Australian Parliament, Meredith was sent back the next week, by direct order from the Minister of Defense. This time however, Meredith spent his time wisely and organized an anti-emu militia formed from the farmers. The renewed effort by Meredith’s machine guns and the farmer’s marksmanship had a greater impact. For the next three weeks, Meredith’s counter insurgency claimed the lives of over 300 emus, and possibly more due to the emu’s distinct lack of medical care for their wounded. But it still was not enough. The Australian press was having a hoot with the story, and the negative press for the “The Great Emu War” caused Meredith to be recalled in December.
Despite appeasing the emus and halting direct military operations, the emus refused to curtail their deprivations of the Wheatbelt. The farmers continued to request military assistance, but the Australian government refused to authorize boots on the ground. They were unwilling to pay the political cost for a direct decades long War with the Emu. However, they didn’t surrender. The emu were akin to Napoleon’s corps and required forage to operate, so local governments invested in new emu/dingo/rabbit-proof fencing for the farmers. In essence, the new fencing isolated the emus from their logistics hubs. More importantly though, the Australian government issued a bounty on proof of every dead emu. In the mid to late 1930s, scalp hunting emu bounty hunters descended upon the Wheatbelt. Many tens of thousands of emus were killed over the next decade, giving credence to the impossibility of Meredith’s task, but ending the Emu Menace to the farmers.
Round Three to Australia.