After the World War 1, the Australian government decided to reward its veterans by giving them land to farm. About 5,000 of them were given land grants in Western Australia, a region that was largely uninhabited. Veterans mostly choose sheep and wheat as their main occupation and by hard work managed to turn an inhospitable desert into a blooming agricultural community.
By 1929, most of the region has been cleared, and many rivers were dammed to create reserves of water for crops and farm animals. The Great Depression has crashed the markets, and the price of wheat was lower than ever, but then the real disaster struck in 1932.
Emus are large flightless birds endemic to Australia and close relatives of ostriches. They regularly migrate from inland to the coast in search for food, and each year more and more of them have discovered that Campion district in Western Australia, once a wilderness, was now a cultivated land, filled with water reservoirs and wheat fields, providing excellent habitat for them. In 1932, estimated 20,000 emus descendent on the farms in the district. They destroyed crops and farmers were helpless against such large numbers.
In their search for help, veterans came to Ministry of Defense. Sir George Pearce, the minister, was sensitive to their plight and decided to help. He dispatched Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery with two soldiers, Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Hallora, armed with two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The Lewis gun was a light machinegun made in the United States. It was believed that it would have no trouble culling the huge masses of Emus that threatened to collapse the economy of Western Australia. Unfortunately, emus had few aces up their sleeves as well.
The first battle of what would become famous as Emu War happened on November 2nd when farmers tried to herd some 50 emus into an ambush set by Major Meredith and his men. Instead, emus broke into smaller groups, and only a few of them were killed. Two days later, Major Meredith set an ambush near the local lake, expecting a group of some 1,000 emus to come. As they started to drink, Lewis gun opened fire but jammed after firing just 13 bullets, allowing emus to scatter and escape.
The similar situation was seen for the rest of the campaign. As soon as birds heard guns, they would break into smaller groups and run away. Even mounting weapons on trucks didn’t help, since emus easily outrun them and gun couldn’t be fired with any precision while the vehicle was driving over the rough terrain. Emus even devised a new tactic to increase their chances against better-armed opponents:
“Each mob [of birds] 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.”
Soon the press got hold of the news and started to mercilessly ridicule both the government and the Army. The results were best summarized by ornithologist Dominic Serventy:
“The machine-gunners’ dreams of point-blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force, therefore, withdrew from the combat area after about a month.”
Major Meredith compared his opponents to Zulu warriors, commending them on their maneuverability:
“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.”
He was happy to report that his unit didn’t suffer any casualties, which was duly noted in the Australian Parlament, who held a session on the topic, where the government was mocked with a serious of questions by the opposition. One of them was whether any medals were planned for the campaign, to which a representative from Western Australia, A.E. Green answered that if any medals are to be given, they are to go to emus, since they won every battle in the war.
Major was sent to Campion again a month later. He claimed 986 kills with 9,860 rounds after he was recalled in December. The rate of exactly 10 bullets per dead emu is suspiciously round, yet his superiors didn’t comment on that. Despite the repeated requests for help in 1934, 1943, and 1948, the government decided that enough is enough and instead introduced a bounty system, which resulted in almost 60,000 dead emus in just six months of 1934.