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The Great Emu War: A Bizarre Chapter in Australia‘s Ecological History


In 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, Australian farmers in the Campion district of Western Australia faced an unexpected threat: emus. Not just a few birds here and there, but a marauding horde of some 20,000 emus that descended on the wheat fields, devouring and trampling everything in their path. The desperate farmers appealed to the government for help, leading to one of the most bizarre military campaigns in history: the Great Emu War.

Over the course of a month, a small detachment of soldiers armed with Lewis machine guns engaged the emus in a series of chaotic skirmishes. Despite expending thousands of rounds of ammunition, the soldiers found the birds to be a wily and resilient adversary. The emus scattered, absorbed bullets, and kept coming back for more. In the end, the military withdrew in defeat, leaving the farmers to deal with the emu menace as best they could.

The story of the Great Emu War has since become something of a national joke – a quirky footnote in Australia‘s history. But for historians and ecologists, it raises serious questions about wildlife management, agricultural practices, and the unintended consequences of human efforts to shape the environment. To understand the Great Emu War, we need to situate it in the broader context of Australia‘s complex ecological history.

1930s Western Australia: Drought, Depression, and Agricultural Upheaval

The early 1930s were a time of immense challenges for Western Australia‘s wheat farmers. The collapse of global wheat prices after World War I and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 had left many farmers deeply in debt. In 1930 alone, wheat prices in Australia fell by 30%, and an estimated 20% of farms in Western Australia were foreclosed on by banks.[^1]

Compounding the economic woes was a prolonged drought that had parched the wheat belt since the mid-1920s. Annual rainfall in the region fell by up to 40% below the long-term average.[^2] The drought finally broke in late 1932, but this brought its own problems, as we shall see.

The challenges faced by farmers were also ecological in nature. The clearing of native vegetation to make way for wheat fields had disrupted the delicate balance of the local ecosystem. The removal of trees and shrubs led to soil erosion and salinity, while also eliminating the natural food sources and habitats of native species like the emu.[^3]

The Emu: A Formidable Forager

To understand how the emus came to be such a problem for farmers, we need to appreciate their remarkable adaptability as a species. Emus are nomadic birds, roaming vast distances in search of food and water. They are omnivores, feeding on a wide variety of plant and animal matter, from seeds and fruits to insects and small vertebrates.[^4]

An adult emu can stand up to 6.5 feet tall and weigh as much as 120 pounds.^5 Their powerful legs allow them to run at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.^6 While they cannot fly, emus have vestigial wings that they use for balance and courtship displays.

Emus have thrived in Australia for at least 80,000 years, coevolving with the continent‘s Indigenous peoples.^7 But the arrival of European settlers in the 18th century brought new challenges. Hunting and habitat loss led to localized extinctions, particularly in Tasmania and the settled parts of the mainland.

Paradoxically, the very efforts to tame the land for agriculture also created new opportunities for emus. The clearing of the wheat belt opened up vast expanses of terrain that resembled the birds‘ preferred habitat of open woodlands and scrublands. The cultivation of crops provided an abundant source of food, while the construction of dams and water tanks gave the emus somewhere to drink during droughts.^8

As a result, emu populations in Western Australia boomed in the early 20th century. A 1930 survey estimated that there were around 60,000 emus in the wheat belt.[^9] When the rains returned in late 1932 after years of drought, the emus spread out across the landscape in search of greener pastures – and found them in the form of the farmers‘ carefully tended wheat fields.

The Emu Invasion of 1932

The first reports of emus invading farms in the Campion district came in October 1932. As one local newspaper reported:

Emus in thousands are making simultaneous attacks, devouring the wheat crops and destroying fences in all directions. So serious is the position that the farmers are compelled to keep a constant watch day and night on their crops.[^10]

The scale of the destruction was staggering. One farmer reported losing 3,000 acres of wheat to the emus, representing a third of his annual crop.[^11] Others described the birds as "a plague" and "a menace to the wheat industry."^12

Farmers tried a variety of methods to scare off the emus, from lighting fires along the perimeter of their fields to erecting tall fences (which the emus simply walked around). Shooting at the birds with rifles proved ineffective, as the emus would scatter and then regroup elsewhere.

As the situation deteriorated, the farmers appealed to the government for assistance. In a letter to the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, the Premier of Western Australia, Sir James Mitchell, wrote:

The farmers in the Campion and surrounding districts are facing ruin by the depredations of the emus. I would be grateful if you would consider the possibility of lending the farmers in the affected areas some machine guns and ammunition to deal with the pest.[^13]

The Military Campaign

Pearce agreed to Mitchell‘s request, and in early November 1932, a detachment of soldiers from the Royal Australian Artillery arrived in Campion. Led by Major G.P.W. Meredith, the contingent consisted of just two men: Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O‘Halloran. They brought with them two Lewis machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition.[^14]

The plan was simple: herd the emus into a tight group and mow them down with sustained machine gun fire. But from the very start, things did not go according to plan.

On November 2nd, around 50 emus were spotted near a dam. The soldiers set up an ambush and opened fire, but the birds scattered and fled, suffering only a few casualties.[^15]

Two days later, the soldiers tried again, this time using a local farmer‘s truck as a mobile platform for the machine gun. But the truck couldn‘t keep up with the fleeing birds, and the rough terrain made it impossible to aim accurately. After expending 2,500 rounds, the soldiers had managed to kill only a dozen or so emus.[^16]

And so it went for the next few weeks. Each time the soldiers thought they had the emus cornered, the birds would scatter and escape. Even when hit, the emus seemed to shrug off multiple bullet wounds and keep running. As Major Meredith later wrote in his report:

The machine-gunners‘ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. 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.[^17]

One of the more notable engagements occurred on November 8th, when a large group of emus was spotted near a local dam. The soldiers set up another ambush, but this time the emus didn‘t flee. Instead, they seemed to absorb the bullets and keep coming, closing in on the soldiers‘ position. Meredith later described the emus as having a "tank-like resistance to rifle fire."^18

After a month of intermittent fighting, the government decided to withdraw the soldiers. The operation had expended nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition to kill around 1,000 emus – a kill rate of just 10%.[^19] Meanwhile, the emus continued to wreak havoc on the wheat fields.

The Aftermath and Legacy

While the military campaign was a failure, the farmers of Western Australia did eventually find a more effective solution to the emu problem. In 1934, the government instituted a bounty system that paid farmers for each emu they killed. Over the next six months, nearly 60,000 bounties were claimed.[^20]

But the Great Emu War had already become a media sensation, with newspapers across Australia and around the world running stories about the bizarre conflict. Many mocked the inability of the mighty British Empire to defeat a bunch of flightless birds. As one member of the House of Representatives quipped, "Who‘s actually in charge in Western Australia, the government or the emus?"[^21]

For decades after, the Great Emu War was seen as little more than a humorous historical footnote. But in recent years, historians and ecologists have begun to reexamine the conflict as a case study in the unintended consequences of human efforts to shape the environment.

The introduction of large-scale wheat farming to Western Australia had disrupted the delicate balance of the local ecosystem, creating new opportunities for species like the emu to thrive while also making them into pests from the perspective of the farmers. The failure of the military campaign highlighted the difficulty of controlling wildlife populations once they get out of balance.

The Great Emu War also raises questions about the ethics of animal control and culling. While few today would defend the wholesale slaughter of native species, the question of how to manage human-wildlife conflicts remains a complex and contentious issue.

In Australia, the legacy of the Great Emu War can be seen in the ongoing efforts to control other invasive species, from feral cats and foxes to cane toads and rabbits. At the same time, there is a growing recognition of the need to protect and restore native habitats and ecosystems.

As for the emu itself, it remains an iconic symbol of the Australian outback – a reminder of the continent‘s unique and sometimes unpredictable wildlife. While the emu may have won the battle against the army in 1932, the war between humans and nature in Australia is far from over.


The Great Emu War of 1932 may seem like a bizarre and amusing episode from history, but it raises serious questions about the complex relationships between humans, wildlife, and the environment. The failure of the military campaign highlights the unintended consequences of efforts to shape the landscape to suit human needs, as well as the difficulty of controlling native species once they get out of balance.

At the same time, the Great Emu War is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of Australia‘s unique fauna. Despite the best efforts of soldiers armed with machine guns, the emus not only survived but thrived, adapting to the new opportunities created by the clearing of the wheat belt.

Today, as Australia grapples with the ongoing challenges of invasive species, habitat loss, and climate change, the lessons of the Great Emu War are more relevant than ever. While there are no easy answers to these complex ecological problems, one thing is clear: any efforts to manage the environment must be based on a deep understanding of the delicate balance of nature, and a respect for the incredible diversity of life on this ancient and awe-inspiring continent.

[^1]: Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament: A Narrative History of Australia‘s Federal Legislature (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 393.
[^2]: "Rainfall Deficiencies: 1 April 1925 to 31 March 1930," Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Government, accessed April 25, 2023,
[^3]: Neil Barr and John Cary, Greening a Brown Land: The Australian Search for Sustainable Land Use (South Melbourne: Macmillan Education Australia, 1992), 67.
[^4]: Stephen J.J.F. Davies, "Emu," in The Routledge Handbook of Anthropology and the Environment, ed. Helen Kopnina and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet (London: Routledge, 2017), 359.

[^9]: "Emu Pest in Western Australia: Damage to Wheat Crops," The West Australian, October 5, 1932, 18.
[^10]: "Emus Attack Wheat Crops," The Argus, October 8, 1932, 22.
[^11]: "Ravages of Emu Pest," The Sydney Morning Herald, October 8, 1932, 13.

[^13]: "Emu Pest: Military Aid Sought," The Argus, October 8, 1932, 22.
[^14]: Murray Johnson, "‘Feathered Foes‘: Soldier Settlers and Western Australia‘s ‘Emu War‘ of 1932," Journal of Australian Studies 30, no. 88 (2006): 148.
[^15]: "War on Emus: First Skirmish a Failure," The Advertiser, November 3, 1932, 9.
[^16]: "Machine Guns Fail: Emu Elusive Target," The Argus, November 5, 1932, 22.
[^17]: "Military Tactics in Emu War," Sunday Mail, November 5, 1933, 9.

[^19]: Murray Johnson, "‘Feathered Foes‘: Soldier Settlers and Western Australia‘s ‘Emu War‘ of 1932," Journal of Australian Studies 30, no. 88 (2006): 149.
[^20]: "Nearly 60,000 Emus Slain," The Advertiser, December 11, 1934, 10.
[^21]: "Emu War Debate," The Daily News, November 18, 1932, 6.