Australian armies have taken part in a number of wars, including WWI, WWII and others, and their achievements and sacrifices are celebrated by a proud nation, but often forgotten is the only war Australia fought on her own, and lost.
The background for this war starts with the end of WWI, when many returning soldiers, including English soldiers who chose to move to Australia, decided to take up farming in Western Australia. With global depression setting in during the late 20s, these farmers were encouraged to grow wheat to help the nation, and were promised subsidies to offset any falling prices. The problem was that with the extra production prices did tumble, but the Government was unable to deliver subsidies, leaving many farmers facing hardship.
Things became even worse by October 1932 because some 20,000 emus were on their annual migration from inland to the coast, but suddenly found themselves in a vast area of cleared lands and added water supplies. This was like Paradise for the emus and they decided to stick around, and they either ate or spoiled a lot of crops and destroyed fences – letting in many hungry rabbits that had been kept out.
The farmers were desperate and once again turned to the Government, where they met with the Australian Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. Like these farmers, Sir George had served in WWI and had seen for himself the effectiveness of machine guns, so when the farmers asked for these guns to be deployed on the emu population he quickly agreed.
There were conditions to the deployment of these machine guns. Because they were weapons of war they could only be used by military personnel with proper trooper transport, while food and accommodation would be given by the farmers (who would also pay towards ammunition).
The troops would be led by Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, armed with two Lewis Automatic Machine Guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. They were ordered to kill as many emus as they could and collect 100 skins so that their feathers could be used for hats worn by the Australian light horsemen.
Although war had been “declared” in October, action was delayed for a number of days due to heavy rainfall. Engagements began on the 2nd November, and after a number of encounters perhaps a few emus had been killed.
On the 4th November over a thousand birds had been sighted, but the guns jammed after 12 had been killed, and the rest had scattered.
Over the next few days the Australian troops engaged the enemy a number of times, but after 6 days, on 8th November, Major Meredith reported back that they had spent some 2,500 rounds, but had killed only 50 or so birds (farmers would later claim that wounded birds would raise the number to over 200).
Meredith’s official report noted proudly that his men suffered no casualties.
In Parliament the war had become an embarrassment, with Dominic Serventy famously commenting that “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.” Sir George had no option left and ordered a withdrawal of troops, thus admitting defeat for the Australian army.
Major Meredith later reported the emus had surprised his troops with their maneuverability and their ability to sustain heavy injuries. 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. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop”.
Australia were to have better success a few days later, but it was not effective enough. The farmers called for further military assistance in 1934, 1943 and 1948, but were turned down each time. The Government did not want to engage this formidable enemy yet again.
To this day, Australians and emus live side by side in an uneasy peace, but who knows when hostilities may break out again?