Australian history is littered with stirring tales of military excellence, of Diggers fighting bravely and brilliantly, defying the odds and stunning the world with our natural antipodean prowess. But there is one triumph that is sadly often overlooked, purely because the vanquished enemy happened to be the Australian Army itself, and the plucky Aussies who won the victory were not, in a technical sense, human. It’s historical bigotry – but luckily we can finally set that right.
The Great Emu War of 1932 was sparked by the farmers of Western Australia and their frustration with the vast hordes of emus destroying their crops. These lanky, feathered, vegetarian velociraptors swept across the farmlands in their tens of thousands, making the task of living off the land — already difficult due to the Depression — almost impossible. The farmers, being proud Australians committed to honouring their national customs, complained to the government. The government’s response was simple: send in the army. Major GPW Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery travelled to WA with two subordinates and a brace of Lewis guns, with which he was to shoot down the rapacious birds with extreme prejudice.
Traditional thinking, in both the realms of military history and of comparative zoology, would have it that the average flightless bird is at a severe disadvantage in direct conflict with the average gas-operated truck-mounted pan-magazine 500-rounds-per-minute automatic machine gun. Traditional thinking, though, has its limitations — and so it proved.
The Royal Artillery began with the obvious: herding the emus into a large group so they could be efficiently mown down. This hit a snag with the discovery that the emu is a masterful guerrilla fighter. At the first whiff of an ambush they immediately split into myriad small groups running every which way, making it impossible for the guns to draw a bead on a single mass of birds. Later Meredith had his men lie in wait by a dam for more than a thousand emus who were coming for a drink. Twelve emus laid down their lives that day but then the gun jammed and the rest scarpered, proving once and for all that when it comes to operational reliability, an emu beats a Lewis gun every time.
Beyond their tactical acumen, the emus proved stunningly resilient in combat. All the intelligence the Australian Defence Force had gathered up to that time had indicated that a bullet would cause considerable inconvenience to a bird when applied directly to the flesh. Not so for the hardy emu. To their dismay, the soldiers discovered that when you shot an emu, more often than not it just kept running. To actually bring an emu down you had to keep pumping in the lead and the damn thing was probably out of range by the time you loosed enough ammo at it. It was an intolerable situation for a proud soldier: not only was it fiendishly difficult to hit the birds as they split up and weaved erratically across the plains, but even if you did hit them it bothered them about as much as a moderately aggressive mosquito. Major Meredith wrote that emus were a formidable foe in the vein of the Zulus, noting, “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world.”
In the end the government recognised the futility of trying to eradicate emus with their feeble mortal weapons, and the army withdrew after some rather pointed questions in parliament, including a query to the Minister of Defence as to whether medals would be struck for service in the Emu Campaign. A bounty system encouraging locals to hunt their own emus proved more effective in the end, and the Emu War passed into history. The only remaining question being: why exactly don’t we have a military division of emus?
Ben Pobjie is an author and comedian who can be found writing for the ABC, Crikey, Fairfax and anyone else who’ll have him. He lives in Melbourne with a wife, three children, one cat and a rising sense of panic. His new book, Aussie Aussie Aussie!, a collection of comedic biographies of Australian history’s greatest figures, is out now through Affirm Press.