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Sunday, 28 January 2018

History in Focus: The Emu War

Australian reporting of the War
The 1930s saw a series of bloody wars which ravaged the globe. Spain splintered between republican and nationalist forces, Mussolini led a destructive invasion of Ethiopia, Japan invaded China twice bringing misery and destruction in its wake, and of course the Second World War broke out in September 1939. However, these conflicts pale in comparison to one war...and judging by the fact that you've read the title of this blog post you know I'm making a joke about the Emu War. This famous war broke out in 1932 where the Australian army went to war against emus...and lost. 

Background to the War
Following the Second World War the Australian government had encouraged war veterans and recent British migrants to take up farming in the expanses of Western Australia, and following the Great Depression they were encouraged to take up farming wheat. The Depression had virtually destroyed the international wheat market greatly affecting Canada, the United States, and Australia so this was an attempt to rebuild the Australian farming economy. However, they faced a problem. The farms set up were fairly small so they were not overly financially viable, especially if something could negatively affect crop growth. Then an army arrive. The caws of 20,000 migrating emus wanting to reclaim their land long taken from them by the human hordes descended onto Western Australia. In particular, the cleared land and abundant water supply made Western Australia perfect for the emus; no emu in living memory had experienced such fine land. A blitzkrieg campaign started: the emus would descend on the crops which allowed their rabbit underlings to follow afterwards. Farmers were outraged and bounties on emu heads were set up. Eventually, the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, took up the call of help issued from the beleaguered farmers. He chose to send the army in to fight the emus...

The War
An emu private. Believed to be Private Gruff McCaw
In October 1932 the army under Major G.P.W Meredith of the 7th Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery arrived at Campion with four soldiers, two Lewis guns, and a cinematographer from Fox Movietown for propaganda purposes. Like many major military skirmishes - the Spanish Armada's invasion of England, Waterloo - the weather affected the battle. Bad weather had caused the emus to scatter into guerrilla cells meaning the army had to wait until 2 November to begin battle. After the 'Phony War' of October the army descended on a platoon of 50 emus; however, with nothing to cage in the emus the machine gun fire scattered the platoon leading to no fatalities. The next day they hoped to ambush the emus at a dam and they came into contact with a battalion of 1,000 emus. The machine guns jammed and only twelve emus died that day. In a deplorable act of aggression Meredith went to attack a pacifistic community of emus which were referred to contemptuously as 'tame'. 

Their contempt for more more peaceful emus brought their downfall. The emus became organized and most avoided the attacks from the Australian army. One recruit said (imagine the black-and-white imagery with accompanying music of PBS' The Civil War):
The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.
Emu POWs, c.8 November 1932

Desperate, Meredith attached a gun to the back of a truck to do drive-by-shootings in a similar way to how George S. Patton fought Pancho Villa's supporters. However, the truck was slow and not used to the rough terrain of the Australian Outback so they couldn't shoot straight. At the same time Australia's propaganda machine was backfiring. The Perth Mirror reported that people were complaining about the cruelty towards the emus in newsreels before movies, the Australian RSPCA sent threatening to Sydney, and the British even condemned the 'extermination of the rare emu'. Like what happened in the Vietnam War the public started sympathizing with the emu guerrillas. Soon Meredith pulled out of Western Australia commenting: 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. We do not know the exact figure of the emus killed but Meredith believed that it was around 50 birds.

Aftermath and Legacy
After the First Emu War several other punitive expeditions were done against the emus until the Australian government chose to arm the farmers, of whom virtually all were veterans. The veterans committed harsh reprisal against the emus bringing back the bounty system and personally leading expeditions against the birds. It is believed that 57,034 birds were slaughtered by 1934. However, the emus got the last caw. Emu attrition and the Depression caused Campion to became a ghost town. Today the Emu War is a distant but bitter memory of the Australian military with only people making jokes about it on the internet directly affecting them. However, it is likely that the emus have not forgotten. They learnt that the weapons of the humans are flawed. It is only a matter of time before they ally themselves with the magpies and drop bears to drive the humans from Australia...
The future for Australia?
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Murray Johnson, '"Feathered foes": Soldier settlers and Western Australia's "Emu War" of 1932,' Journal of Australian Studies, 88, (2006), 147-157
-TROVE National Library of Australia Digitised Newspapers - Western Australia

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