The War They Won’t Teach You About

May 17, 2023

When you think of war, what kind of images are conjured up? Violence? Destroyed buildings? Birds? For a group of Australian soldiers in the 1930s, war waged on and birds were the enemy. But not just any birds: Emus.

Following World War I, there were multitudes of Australian soldiers who were out of work and options. To stimulate the economy and help the veterans, the Australian government started the Soldier Settlement Scheme. This plan gave farmland to around 5,030 ex-military personnel. But the government soon developed a new problem as it began to run out of fertile land to give. Eventually, it divvied up the dry land in the western part of the country. The soldiers who received this land struggled to grow wheat in the barren soil. On top of all of that, the Great Depression hit, making wheat prices crash. 

Now imagine, you are a World War I veteran, struggling to get by and grow wheat on your arid, government-given land. The Great Depression is a constant threat. Things could not possibly be worse.

But things were worse. The farmers had to worry about the emus. The gargantuan birds found the measly wheat farms a good source of food. According to Scientific American, there were around 20,000 emus destroying farms by 1932. They had become such a problem, in fact, that the Australian government reclassified them as vermin. The farmers demanded that the government retaliate, and the government took the most reasonable course of action. They declared war on the emus. 

The Australian military came into the first battle prepared. On November 2, 1932, the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery set up two machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammo in Western Australia. Over the course of the day, the soldiers circled up and shot at thousands of emus. Despite the many targets, they only killed around a dozen of the birds. Emus 1, Australian military 0. 

Soon after the first battle, the military realized that they had greatly underestimated the emus. The man in charge of the operation, Major C.W.P Meredith, even said, as stated in an Australian newspaper, The Sunday Herald, “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 this was a bit of an overstatement, the birds were incredibly tough. They could take around 4 bullets before even realizing that they had been shot. 

Unfortunately for the Australians, this was not the last time they were bested by their avian adversaries. The emus won again when ambushed by the military, on account of the fact that one of the machine guns jammed. The next victory for the emus occurred when the soldiers tried to chase the birds down with a machine gun secured to a truck. The emus outran the truck, resulting in another devastating loss.

Things were starting to look bleak for the Australians. They were being crushed in a fight they expected to easily win. They were killing some emus, but the majority were getting away. Major Meredith looked at the numbers and figured out that it took about 10 bullets to kill just one bird. Around 2,500 rounds had been fired, and only 50 to 200 emus had been killed. 

The group of soldiers was quickly called off in light of this discovery. The “war” was finally over, but the problem was far from it. Emus were still ravaging crops. 

Eventually, the government had the idea of putting a bounty on the birds. The ex-military farmers of the region worked to control the emu population. This was doubly effective, as the emu population was kept in check, and the poor farmers received some financial support.

Today, the emus have made a full recovery. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is estimated that more than 630,000 adult emus live in Australia, and their population seems to be stable. It is now, once again, a protected animal and has been recategorized from vermin to being of little concern. At least for now, the emus and the Australians seem to be living in peace.

This event in Australia’s history was comical, but it was also sad. There were no real winners, from the struggling farmers to the hundreds of emus that were killed. On top of all of this, the Australians learned a valuable lesson: If you ever declare war on birds, don’t pick the emus.

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