The Great Emu War

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Podcast Transcript

After the first world war, many Australian veterans settled in the Campion district of Western Australia to become farmers on land provided by the government. 

It was there they encountered an enemy far more cleaver than any which they encountered in Europe. 

They fought this enemy with state-of-the-art weapons and vehicles, yet it still wasn’t enough to ensure victory.

Learn more about the Great Emu War on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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This episode is sponsored by Brilliant.org

Brilliant’s mission is to inspire and develop people to achieve their goals in STEM — one person, one question, and one small commitment to learning at a time.

They enable great teachers to illuminate the soul of math, science, and engineering through bite-sized, interactive learning experiences. Their courses explore the laws that shape our world, elevating math and science from something to be feared to a delightful experience of guided discovery.

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If you haven’t been to Australia, it’s a really big country. It is approximately the size of the continental United States, but with the population of Florida and Kentucky combined. 

One of the reasons the population density is so low is, 1) it’s far away from everything, and 2) the vast majority of the country is a giant desert. 

The Australian government created a program in 1915 to settle military veterans in farmland around the country. 

By 1920, they had purchased over 200,000 acres of land and had settled about 5,000 soldiers, but they still needed more land. 

They ended up settling soldiers on some marginal land in the Southwest of Australia in the Campion District. 

This land was given with the intent that the veterans would grow wheat. The problem was, this land was very marginal. 

Not only was the land marginal for growing wheat, but almost none of the veterans had experience farming. 

On top of all of that, come 1929 the Great Depression hit which caused global wheat prices to plummet. 

However, all of these problems paled in comparison to what appeared in 1932: emus. Lots of emus. 

Emus have been a part of the Australian landscape for many thousands of years. If you don’t know what an emu is, it is basically the Australian version of an ostrich, but a little bit smaller. 

Without knowing, the ranchers and farmers had inadvertently created a paradise for emus.  

Emus, unlike ostriches, actually require a lot of water. The arid conditions of the Australian outback provided a natural check against the growth of the emu population. 

Ranchers created watering holes and water troughs for their sheep, which were also used by the emus, allowing their population to explode. 

The wheat farmers were basically growing emu food. The emus loved wheat.

Not only did the emu population explode, but they travel in groups. There was a giant heard….ummm…..flock? 

Wait a second. 

“What do you call a group of emus?”

There was a giant mob of emus, 20,000 strong, which would trample the wheat fields and destroy fencing, which kept the rabbits out. 

Basically, the emus were ruining everything for the farmers and the farmers wanted to do something about it. 

These farmers, if you remember, we all military veterans, so they took their complaints to the Australian Minister of Defense, Sir George Pearce. 

Having served in World War I, these men had seen the weapons of war, and they had a proposal for the minister as to how to take care of the emu problem. 

Machine guns. In particular, Lewis guns. 

Their plan was to take a machine gun, mount it on a car, drive to the mob of emus, and just machine-gun them all down. 

Now, not being an expert in emu eradication, if someone came to me with the idea of machine-gunning down a giant mob of emus, I would think that such a plan would work.

I grant you, maybe it is a bit overkill, but as far as achieving the goal of emu elimination, I would have bet money that the “machine gun all the emus” plan would have worked. 

The government approved the plan, if for no other reason than for the publicity. Western Australia was in the middle of a popular secession movement, and the government wanted to look like they were doing something. They even sent a film crew along to document the Great Emu War.

The emu culling was supposed to begin in October 1932, but due to rain, it was held off until November. 

A small military unit equipped with two Lewis machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition was sent out. 

On November 2, they had their first engagement with the enemy. They found a “mob” of 50 emus at a distance and fired. Unfortunately, they were too far away, and they only got about a dozen of them.

Two days later there were reports of a “mob” of about a thousand birds near a dam. They positioned themselves for an ambush, but this time the gun jammed. They got about a dozen more. 

For the rest of the week they set out to get emus, but they had very little luck. The emus would see them coming from a distance and then scatter. 

By November 8th, only somewhere between 50 and 200 emus were killed at an expense of 2,500 bullets.

One ornithologist named Dominic Serventy noted

“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.”

The emu war had become a laughing stock in parliament.

One minister from New South Wales inquired if a medal would be given out to the soldiers who took part. Another minister from Western Australia responded that if awards are to be given out, they should go to the emus who won all the battles. 

Later that month, a second campaign was launched, which was about as successful as the first. 

Basically, the Great Emu War of 1932 was pretty much a failure. Machine guns really weren’t that effective. 

Major G.P.W Merideth, the leader of the expedition said:

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.

While the organized military opposition to the emus failed, the farmers did manage to inflict heavy casualties on the emu population in later years. Rather than use the military, the Australian government just instituted a bounty program where the farmers were responsible for the eradication. 

In 1934, over a six-month period, 57,034 emus were killed. 

Eventually, better fencing solved most of the emu problem for farmers. 

Today, the emu is still on the Australian coat of arms, and there are approximately 650,000 emus in Australia. 

So for those of you following along at home, the score still remains emus 1, Australia 0.