In November 1932, the Commonwealth government received (and acceded to) a peculiar request for assistance from WA wheat farmers whose crops were being damaged by emus. A succinct summary is in the speech by Senator Sir George Pearce given on 18 November 1932 (see Hansard at 2570):
“It was explained to me that the use of rifles for the extinction of the birds was quite ineffective, because only one or two birds could be shot before the remainder scattered far and wide. Ordinary fences such as keep out dingoes and kangaroos offer no obstacle to emus, for the birds take them in their stride, or knock them down, and thus let the rabbits into the crops.
I was asked to allow machine guns [yes – machine guns!] belonging to the Defence Department to be used for the destruction of the birds, the farmers undertaking to pay for the necessary ammunition…..I ultimately agreed to allow three members of the permanent military personnel to go into this district with the guns, on the State Government undertaking to give them their railway fares and pay for the ammunition used.”
The so-called “emu war”, perhaps unsurprisingly, attracted criticism in the press and wasn’t very successful in reducing emu numbers. The military were quickly withdrawn. Some of the quotable quotes from the time included:
- Comments by ornithologist Dominic Serventy: “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. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month”; and
- After the withdrawal, Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus and commented on the striking manoeuvrability of the emus, even while badly wounded: “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.”
If you want to know more about this bizarre history have a look at the Wikipedia entry or the academic article “Feathered foes: soldier settlers and Western Australia’s ‘Emu War’ of 1932” (2006) Journal of Australian Studies (88): 147-157.
….it must have seemed a good idea at the time!
Creative commons acknowledgment for the photograph.