In 1932, farmers in Western Australia faced an invasion. An army of emus — 20,000 strong — emerged from the Outback and laid waste to their fields.
In the middle of the Great Depression, this was no laughing matter, as farmers needed the income and Australians needed food.
The Great Emu War has become something of a meme in recent years, so it’s time we take a bit closer look.
In the 1930s, most farmers in Western Australia were veterans of WWI who the Australian government had given land after their service.
They worked hard to develop the unforgiving territory. Unfortunately, the land they cleared and the water sources they established created a prime environment for the emus that regularly migrated through the region.
With easy access to food and water, the emus decided to stay. They destroyed crops and fences and generally wreaked havoc.
The veteran farmers of Western Australia had enough. Having witnessed the devastating power of machine guns on the battlefields of Europe, they wrote to the capital requesting them to combat the emu hordes.
The government agreed, believing that the emus would make great target practice.
The War Begins
In October 1932, Maj. G.P.W. Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery arrived. He brought with him two Lewis guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
The first engagement came on November 2 after a herd of 50 emus was reported near the town of Campion.
Local farmers attempted to herd the birds into an ambush, but the enemy broke off into small groups, then ran too fast to target effectively. Only about a dozen emus were eliminated as they fled.
Two days later, over 1,000 emus were spotted near a dam.
Meredith set up a position hoping to do some real damage this time. The Lewis guns jammed after killing another 12 birds — the rest escaped.
After repeated failures, the guns were mounted on trucks to better chase the small units as they ran. However, the birds proved too fast and the terrain too rough to accurately fire the guns while moving.
By day six, only about 50 emus had been killed with over 2,500 rounds of ammunition fired.
The large herds broke into smaller groups, making the problem worse. After a month of repeated failures and increasingly bad press, the troops withdrew.
Meredith remarked, “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.”
Another operation launched a week after the withdrawal was slightly more successful and close to 1,000 birds were culled. But thousands remained and continued to plague the farmers.
In a move that should have perhaps been considered earlier, the Australian government instead created a bounty system.
They supplied the farmers with .303 ammunition and paid them for every emu they eliminated.
This seemed to do the trick, as farmers collected nearly 60,000 emu bounties in 1934 alone.
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