They may not have had weapons or armor, but the emu army of Australia proved to be a formidable foe.
Question: What war pitted Australia against a flightless “air force” that still emerged victorious?
Answer: The Great Emu War of 1932
Believe it or not, Australia waged war on 20,000 emus in 1932, never imagining the five-foot-tall, flightless birds would emerge victorious. The war began after Australian and British soldiers from World War I took up farming in Western Australia. With a high demand from the government, farmers were under immense pressure to produce large quantities of wheat, but the emus had other plans.
After their breeding season, the emus migrated to the coast and stumbled upon the farmers’ land—the area was clear, there was plenty to eat, and water intended for livestock was easily accessible. Meeting their list of requirements, the emus decided the wheat fields would become their new home. Much to the dismay of the farmers, the emus feasted on their crops and destroyed fences that were designed to keep out rabbits, which only made the situation worse.
Unable to control the emu infestation on their own, the former soldiers went straight to Australia’s Minister of Defense, Sir George Pearce, requesting military machine guns. Pearce immediately obliged, believing the birds would make good target practice for the soldiers. And thus, the Great Emu War of 1932 was underway.
Timeline of events:
- October 1932: Major G. P. W. Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery set off with the farmers, machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. But the group quickly hit a wall when a period of rain forced the emus to scatter, making it impossible to defeat their enemy.
- November 2, 1932: When the rain ceased and the emus gathered once again, the soldiers were ready for victory, only to discover the birds were out of range for their weapons. Locals attempted to herd the birds closer to the soldiers, but instead, they broke off into small groups, still making it impossible for the soldiers to reach them with their guns.
- November 4, 1932: Approximately 1,000 emus were spotted at a nearby dam and this time, the soldiers made sure they were close enough before they attacked. Shots were fired; the unsuspecting emus attempted to flee; and a number of emus became the first casualties of the war. The victory was short lived, however, as the gun jammed after only killing twelve birds. By the time the gun was repaired, the emus had disappeared.
- November 6, 1932: Major Meredith and his soldiers had little to no luck thus far and were frustrated at how quickly the emus got away during their attacks. Desperate times called for desperate measures, so Meredith strapped a machine gun onto a truck and went after the emus. But the truck was unable to keep up with the speedy birds, and the bumpy ride made it impossible for the gunman to fire even a single shot during the chase.
- November 8, 1932: The media reported on the war to the public, citing the small number of emu deaths, and giving the government a reputation. To avoid further embarrassment, the Minister of Defense called off the hunt and took back the guns. Major Meredith commended the emus on their fight when he 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.”
- November 12, 1932: Major Meredith and the guns were reenlisted in the fight after the farmers continued to plead with the government. The war lasted for about a month after that, and on December 10, 1932, the government finally put a stop to it all. Although the number of emu casualties is not precisely known, Meredith claimed there were 986 kills and 9,860 rounds of ammunition fired, meaning it took an average of ten shots to kill one bird. One emu was killed by a truck and the soldiers found five bullets in its body—the birds were so ruthless that they were able to sustain injuries from several bullets.
Although the emus were victorious, they eventually retreated, but it wasn’t from fear of guns. What little was left of the wheat was harvested and with nothing left to eat, they had no reason to stick around. Until next time, emus!
Perhaps you’ll spot an emu with O.A.T. during Australia & New Zealand: An Adventure Down Under. For more on Australian wildlife, watch this short film to find out if kangaroos technically have four legs or five.
©2014 The New York Times