The Emu War

The Emu War
Research By Gordon Freegard

Subsequent to the cessation of the hostilities after World War 1, a large number of ex-soldiers from Australia, along with a number of British Veterans, took up farming within Western Australia, often on the more marginal areas. With the onset of the depression in 1929, these farmers were encouraged to increase their wheat crops, with the government promising – and failing to deliver – assistance in the form of subsidies. In spite of the recommendations and the promised subsidies, wheat prices continued to fall, and by October of 1932 matters were coming to a head, with the farmers preparing to harvest the season’s crop while simultaneously threatening to refuse to load the wheat.

The difficulties facing the farmers were not lessoned by the arrival of as many as twenty thousand emus. The emus regularly migrate after their breeding season, heading to the coast from the inland regions. With the cleared land and additional water supplies being made available for livestock by the West Australian farmers, the emus found that the cultivated lands made for good habitats, and they began to foray into the farm territory – in particular the marginal farming land around Campion and Walgoolan. The emus consumed and spoiled the crops, as well as leaving large gaps in fences through which rabbits could enter and cause further problems.

In October 1932, a deputation of soldiers settlers met the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, seeking the deployment of machine-guns against the emus. Sir George readily agreed, on the grounds that the birds would make good target practice and their feathers could be used to make hats for Light Horsemen. His conditions were that the machine-guns were only to be fired by military personnel, the W.A. Government would pay for the troop transport, and the farmers should food, accommodation and payment for the ammunition. A Fox Movietone cinematographer was enlisted to film the hostilities.

Having heard of this event happening three young lads from Pickering Brook decided to get involved. They were the Francais brothers Vic and Bert, and friend Ray Owen. They set out to travel to Campion in a Chevy truck affectionly known as “the old bus” and Ray’s Salmson sports car. After travelling all the way to the rabbit-proof fence at Campion they finally caught up with the excitement and willingly joined in.

Military involvement was set to begin immediately, under Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, with the major commanding two soldiers, Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O’Halloran armed with Lewis automatic machine-guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Unfortunately, it rained, the emus scattered, and the first engagement was delayed until November 2.

That day the military sighted 50 emus near Campion. As they were out of range of the guns, the local settlers attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but the birds split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult to target. Nevertheless, while the first round of fire from the machine-guns was ineffective due to the range, but a second round was able to kill “a number” of birds, thus drawing first blood. Later the same day a small flock was encountered, and “perhaps a dozen” birds were killed.

The next “significant engagement” was on November 4. Major Meredith established an ambuscade near a dam, and over 1000 of the enemy were sighted heading for their position. The gunners waited until they were at point-blank range before opening fire. But one of the guns jammed and only a dozen birds were killed, and they scattered before any more could be accounted for No more birds were sighted that day. Onlookers were surprised by the emu’s ability to sustain injury and keep running. Major Meredith was quoted as saying: “if we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds if would face any army in the world. They could face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus……..”

A blazing sun greeted the fourth day of the Campion Lewis gun campaign. Major Meredith and Sergeant McMurray had spent the night in Mr. Parry’s paddock again and at daybreak poured lead into a small group of birds, killing a dozen and wounding several more. The major himself fired a Lewis gun and proved a capable marksman. The party was relieved later that morning by Gunner O’Halloran and Mr. J. Joyce. The next night Meredith and McMurray laid in ambush in the crop of Mr. T. McGeorge, where the biggest flocks of emus were now reported.

In the days that followed Meredith chose to move the engagement further south where the birds were said to be tamer, but there was only limited success in spite of his efforts. At one stage Meredith even went so far as to mount one of the guns on a truck: a move that proved to be ineffective, as the truck was both unable to gain on the birds and the ride was so rough that the gunner was unable to fire off any shots. By November 8, six days after the first engagement, 2500 rounds had been fired for 50 birds killed. On the plus side, the major’s official report stated that his men had suffered no casualties. He expressed the greatest satisfaction with the behavior of the Lewis guns. The guns were best suited to the peculiar work at hand and were proving very effective. The weapons used by McMurray and O’Halloran fire at the rate of 10 rounds a second. There is a distance of 21 inches between each bullet, and the gunners fire for the most part in a burst of five.

As the naturalist Dominic Serventy remarked; “The machine-gunners’ dreams of point-blank fire into serried masses of emus were soon dissipated. The emu Command had evidently ordered guerilla tactics, and its army split up into innumerable small units that made use of military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force withdrew from the combat area.”

Unimpressed, Sir George Pearce withdrew the military personnel and guns on November 8. But four days later, urged by the WA Premier, James Mitchell, Sir George changed his mind and the operation resumed. Major Meredith was again placed in charge. By December 2 the machine-guns were killing 100 emus a week. Finally recalled on December 10, Major Meredith claimed (very neatly) 986 kills with 9860 rounds, exactly 10 rounds per confirmed kill. As well, the major claimed proudly that 2500 wounded birds had died “as a result of the injuries they sustained”.

Despite the farmers’ further pleas for military intervention in 1934, 1938 and 1943, an uneasy Federal Government turned them down. The emus had won the battle but would lose the war. An existing emu-culling bounty system was financially boosted so the farmers would readily do the shooting. The farmers were better shots. In one six-month period in 1934, 57,034 bounties were claimed. That’s a lot of casualties.

Emu War Humour

Western Mail Thursday 14th November 1946

Walgoolan township brought back memories of the great old battler, the late Dan O’Leary and the “Emu War” of which he was the instigator. Army machine-gunners were sent up to massacre the “yallabiddies” which were wreaking havoc among the crops but the birds just wouldn’t play. There is a story, which may be a apocryphal, that the officer in charge of the gunners was invested with the cO.B.E. on his return to Perth. It was not the Order of the British Empire however, but a large leather medal inscribed “One Bloody Emu”.

C.M.L. The west Australian Saturday 12th November 1932

From Communiqué Headquarters (not near anywhere). One being advised of Declaration of War, immediately got in touch with Enemy – not actually of course. We saw them, however – they also saw us.

2.30 p.m. We still see them. Their eyesight also is very good.

3.00 p.m. The Enemy are of very retiring disposition.

3.15 p.m. Our Artillery fire very heavy. All our Army has a headache through incessant noise. Aspro supplies urgently wanted.

3.20 p.m. The Enemy still refuse to stand still and be cockshied at. League of Nations warfare regulations entirely ignored by Enemy.

3.30 p.m. The Enemy cannot be brought to see the seriousness of the affairs. They think it a new sort of game.

3.45 p.m. Our Intelligence Department advise – Enemy as being equipped with legs of superior pattern to ours.

4.00 p.m. We drew first blood of the campaign. As elderly Emu, who was loitering at about 60 miles per hour, was shot in the rear. He immediately got out of range – and out of sight.

4.10 p.m. Our equipment manifestly out of date – what we want are legs, not guns.

4.20 p.m. Superior leg equipment and heavy clubs to slosh the Enemy when we overtake them is the only way to win the War. The only target in sight is the horizon. It is magnificent, but it is not war.

4.30 p.m. We are returning – motor cars and aeroplanes are out of date here – not speedy enough. We might just as well have brought ride-a-cock horses.

5.00 p.m. Just learnt that Enemy not aware of any war – complains they should have been told. Mistook the whole thing for a new sort of Lottery puzzle. They want to know who won.

Reference: Article: Pickering Brook Heritage Group
The West Weekend

Images:: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 Lee Evans
9 Owen Family Collection