By Matthew Khamsihong
The young lance corporal tucked the wood stock and clenched the pistol grip of his Lewis gun, a “light” machine gun he was all too familiar with from his time lugging one around during the First World War. His assistant gunner secured a magazine on top of the gun and gave his shoulder a quick tap, indicating he is loaded and ready to fire.
To the right and left of him, his fellow soldiers did the same with their Lewis guns. The anticipation was building, his heart began beating faster and faster. He felt anxious, but not like he did in the trenches during the war. This was a feeling of familiarity without the risk or sense of danger.
Someone off to the side of the firing line yelled, “Targets spotted, open fire!”. He pulled the trigger, the bolt closed, and the first round from his machine gun went off, producing a rhythmic symphony of automatic weapons fire. In the distance, several hundred meters ahead of him, the lance corporal could see his target plain as day: emus. A nice-sized group of them numbering 50 or more were scrambling across the Campion, Western Australia plains to avoid the snapping and whizzing of bullets being thrown at them at the cyclic rate.
Eventually, the mob of emu scattered, and the soldiers ceased-fire with no birds in sight to engage with their guns. As the lance corporal’s assistant gunner moved to replace the empty mag of his machine gun, he thought, I can’t believe we’re here to shoot emus. Nevertheless, his unit, the Seventh Heavy Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, spent the next month doing just that between November and December 1932.
The events described above may sound like a story someone’s grandfather fabricated to tell their grandkids. Still, one of the strangest chapters in history saw Australian troops deployed to Western Australia to assist local farmers with an overwhelming emu population.
Most have come to know this as the Emu Wars, but in 1932, it was simply a growing and aggravating nuisance to the farmers of Campion, Western Australia. Farmers already struggling to make ends meet after the rippling effects of The Great Depression now faced the threat of giant flightless birds ravaging their crops.
So, what were the results of this unique military action?
The answer may surprise some, but even with the abilities of a technologically advanced and far superior force, the deployment to quell the emu horde resulted in a failure. For a month, the Army patrolled the countryside looking for emu, even enlisting the help of locals to lure them towards patiently waiting machine gun crews. But after the expenditure of nearly 10,000 rounds of ammunition, the military action only managed to produce roughly 950 dead emus—a dent compared to the estimated 20,000 thought to be out roaming Western Australia.
With the results of their actions seeing no significant improvement, the Army eventually left. It would appear that the Emu War was lost for the moment, giving those flightless birds free rein over farmers’ crops.
And with the Army gone, farmers still demanded the government develop a solution for emus and the destruction of their crops. Unfortunately, no such answer or solution would come immediately; however, years later, the government issued a paid bounty on emus that allowed farmers and locals to deal with the birds on their terms. The results proved very successful, with more than 50,000 emu bounties collected in less than half a year, thus bringing a triumphant end to the Emu Wars.