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The Emu War of 1932 July 18, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

In the aftermath of the First World War different countries wrestled with the problem of how to reintegrate their veterans into society. In Britain houses were built ‘fit for heroes’, in Italy soldiers coming home were invited to beat up socialists and in Australia veterans from that country  were given land to farm. These Australian veterans would be the instigators of one of the most bizarre episodes in their nation’s history: the celebrated Emu War of 1932.

In the immediate aftermath of the Great War about 5000 veterans were gifted farming lands in the badlands in the outback near Perth, Western Australia. These farming projects, in fact, prospered relatively well, compared with similar projects in other parts of the country: only about one in three of the farmers gave up or were forced out in the first decade. The successful farmers typically specialised in sheep and wheat farming and several good seasons made many of these farms, albeit on marginal land, into profitable concerns.

However, the depression of 1929 spelt disaster. Wheat prices fell and, after a series of cack-handed government initiatives, the farmers found themselves – despite excellent harvests – at the end of their tether. It was then that the emus struck in force.

The emu problem had actually begun in the immediate aftermath of the First World War when Western Australia changed emus’ status from ‘endangered’ to ‘vermin’ as they invaded the new agricultural lands in search of water. The settlers took the emus in their stride in the  1920s. However, by the early 1930s it was just one problem too many and by 1932 when a reported 20,000 emus (!) descended onto the farm lands then the invasion became a lightning rod for greater concerns.

The lack of trust between the veteran farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture meant that the soldier-farmers turned in an unexpected direction for help: they arrived on the doorstep of the Minister of War, Sir George Pearce. These veterans had understandably vivid memories of the effect of machine guns on massed groups of men – so why not, they reasoned, use Australian machine guns on the birds. GP was willing and ordered a number of companies to go out and save the crops. The farce had begun…

The problem was that from the beginning the emus proved to have considerably more acumen than their human opponents. Emus rarely formed into large groups and when they did it was difficult to predict where these big groups would come together. There were some curious attempts to ‘herd’ the emu towards machine gun nests, but these involved small numbers and relatively few were shot and even fewer killed. Reading the reports that survive Beach has a sense that the human combatants were extremely lucky not to lose some of their own to friendly fire…

Perhaps the presence of Australian cavalry might have helped: after all, an order had been given for a Colonel Hoad to bring light horse out to the west and Hoad had asked for a hundred ostrich plumes to disguise his men! Some cine-film of mounted emus with sabres charging others of their species would have been well worth the money. But sadly the cavalry never made it and the machine gunners continued alone.

The greatest battle of the campaign took place on 4 November. An Australian machine gunner O’Halloran had set up a hidden gun behind a dam wall and watched amazed as a thousand emus approached his position. He waited till they were upon him and then gave the order to open fire. Twelve emus fell in quick succession and then the machine gun jammed…

A subsequent attempt to kill emus involved mounting a machine gun on the back of a lorry and driving it after a small group. Not a single bird was killed, not a single bullet was shot (the gunner had problems enough hanging on) and a stretch of fence was destroyed when the truck careered into it.

The campaign was ended by a series of mocking questions in the Australian Parliament on 9 November of the same year. When one wag asked whether their would be medals given for the campaign, a representative from Western Australia, A.E.Green made the point that the medals should be given to the emus who had ‘won every round so far’.

In fact,  the most authoritative account of the war pays tribute to the emus themselves, who are often sold as the recipients of human stupidity, but who were actually wily guerrillas.

‘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.’

Any other human wars with animals on this scale? And any ideas about the missing cinefilm of the war that was reportedly made? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com