In 1932, the commander of the Royal Australian Artillery’s 7th Field Regiment received an unusual order.
Had it come from anyone else he might have disregarded it as a joke, so outlandish was the premise. But the communication bore the signature of Sir George Pearce, the Minister of Defence, and therefore Major G. P. W. Meredith had no choice but to accept.
The order went as follows: Meredith was to select two of his finest gunmen, arm them with machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and set off for a remote plain in Western Australia. The region, he was told, was under attack, and Meredith was to lead the first counter strike. The enemy? A flock of 20,000 emus with an appetite for destruction.
It was supposed to be a time of peace. With World War I over, Australia’s soldiers had returned home with hopes of reassuming their old lives. The problem was, there weren’t many jobs for them to come back to. Worried for their welfare, the government offered large tracts of land to returned servicemen as part of a ‘swords for ploughshares’ scheme. Over 5000 veterans agreed to start new lives as wheat farmers, but agrarian life proved tough. The soil was harsh, the rains infrequent, and the Great Depression of 1929 had sent wheat prices plummeting. The farmland was also smack bang in the middle of emu country. And emus, it turned out, liked wheat. A lot.
For years the birds were treated as manageable pests that could be scared off with a few rifle shots. But when 20,000 of them were spotted marching towards the farmlands of Campion and Walgoolan in the spring of 1932, the ex-servicemen suddenly felt like they were behind enemy lines. And that’s when Major Meredith got the call.
The Battle for Campion began on November 2. Under cover of night, Meredith and his men pointed their Lewis machine guns at a watering hole where a group of emus had gathered. Capable of ring 500 rounds per minute, their weapons were among the fiercest known to civilisation. They assumed it would be an easy victory. It proved to be anything but.
As the sun rose, Meredith gave the order to fire. The first bullet rang out, and the birds scattered. Meredith tried to coax them back into place, but the emus were having none of it. The first day of battle netted the troops a grand total of nine kills.Image: The Sunday Herald, 1953
It was decided that a new battle plan was needed. Meredith had his men bolt the guns to the roof of a truck. Hooning towards the enemy lines, the new assault was to play out as a drive-by. But the birds easily outran the truck, which struggled with the rough terrain. Of bigger concern than their speed, though, was how the birds seemed to be bulletproof. Rounds that would have taken down more than a dozen men in the trenches of Europe appeared to have no effect on the birds. One emu was shot six times before it ran off out of range, disgruntled but otherwise fine.
It took an entire month of shooting at the birds before the mission was finally deemed a failure. Conceding defeat, Meredith praised his feathered foes, remarking that if only the army “had the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world”.
By the time he was officially recalled to an embarrassed parliament, just 986 emus had lost their lives, and 10,000 bullets sent into the ether – estimated by some to be the worst bullet-to-kill ratio in military history.
With each decade that passes, memory of the Great Emu War grows foggier. Interestingly, there was some talk about officially recognising the battle when it first reached the public’s attention in 1932. A member of parliament even enquired whether the government might issue Meredith’s soldiers with medals. In fairness, another politician remarked, it was the emus who most deserved them.