Misc //

One Bird And A Lot Of Stones

Adam Murphy on when emus fought the war and won.

Repeated image of an emu in style of propaganda poster with text "we want you to spoil all crops". Art by Katie Thorburn
Repeated image of an emu in style of propaganda poster with text "we want you to spoil all crops".
Art by Katie Thorburn

Most people would say that the late-August ‘Border Farce’ operation in Melbourne was a dismal failure, both of public relations and execution, and thank Christ for that. It was also a handy reminder that creating quasi-military law enforcement agencies ex nihilo and slapping oversized epaulettes and fancy insignia on its agents doesn’t do a lot for community endearment. But believe it or not, as botched as the creation and inaugural major operation of the Border Force was, it is a long way behind an even stupider attempt to exercise military authority within Australia’s borders: the ‘Emu War’.

The Emu War, or Great Emu War as it is alternatively referred to, originated in a concern amongst Western Australian farmers in the early 1930s that their lands were being laid to waste by the unassuming emu. In the words of a contemporary news article, “[this] tough, prolific, gangling marauder of the sand plains … has invaded, in a frenzy of hunger, some of the finest fields at the time of ripening of the harvest to shear off crops with voracious beaks.” With their fears no doubt amplified by this grossly overblown language, farmers (who were also ex-soldiers) petitioned the Commonwealth government for assistance—of the military kind. Their pleas found favour in the east, and a small artillery force was dispatched in October 1932. Xerxes may have ordered the Hellespont whipped after it ruined his bridge, but it was Australia that decided to bring the might of the machine gun to bear against its native fauna.

Despite a concerted campaign over the next fortnight, the emu proved to be a more formidable foe than first imagined. Typically the machine gunners would encamp themselves and wait in ambush for flocks of emus reported to number in the thousands. However, when such a flock approached and the gunners fired, the emus scattered at high speed. They were so effective at moving over the open country that a truck-mounted gunner was unable to keep up. In the absence of tactical changes on either side, this form of engagement continued for the whole campaign. When the military unit withdrew in mid-November 1932 after (very) limited success, their Commander, Major Meredith, was moved to comment that “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 [a particularly harmful variety] could not stop.” Given the prevailing level of racism in Australia at that time, this was astonishingly high praise. If the servicemen involved had been hoping for their own Defence of Rorke’s Drift or Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, they were doubtless disappointed to have been defeated by a strange flightless bird looking like an ostrich with hypertrichosis. 

News of the Emu War reached far and wide. It was significant enough to have been discussed contemporaneously in the House of Representatives. It is also reported to have achieved some derisive publicity in the UK. And despite the participants’ complete lack of success, West Australian farmers were to officially request military help in their fight against the emu scourge at least three more times over the next two decades. Nevertheless, it seems the gangling marauder of the sand plains was eventually brought to heel via the same method that has caused the diminution or extinction of countless species the world over: the humble bounty system.

In my view the Emu War should be added to the list of military fuckups, like Gallipoli, that some people feel proud of. It is evidence that our military is not cut out for those pesky domestic operations, and that’s the way it should stay. In some countries, officers of the state enjoy confusing and overlapping jurisdictions, are festooned with badges and told that they are last line of defence against paramilitarios or ‘troublesome minorities’ or whatever. That’s how innocent people get killed, and on a tragically regular basis. It’s insane that these militarised police forces were some kind of benchmark for whoever dreamt up the idea of the Australian Border Force and decided to install the buffoons who run it. So next time anyone in the government gets aroused at the thought of another Border Farce-style operation, remember: we are shit at this kind of thing. Lest we forget the Emu War.