These days, the emu is a national symbol, even featured on our coat of arms, but Australia wasn’t always so enamoured with the giant flightless bird.
After World War One, the Australian government had difficulty finding employment for soldiers who returned home. Their solution was to offer money and land in the country’s barren west to more than 5,000 veterans.
With the promise of subsidies from the government, the new farmers began growing wheat.
Australia was already struggling through drought and the Great Depression. Life was even harder for western farmers – they faced a horde of 20,000 emus.
The giant birds, originally in central Australia, moved west searching for water and stumbled on one of their favourite foods: wheat. The emus devastated wheat crops and tore down fences.
Unable to defeat the marauding birds, the farmers travelled to Canberra to demand assistance. Defence Minister George Pearce agreed to send Lewis machine guns along with soldiers to operate them.
[A Lewis machine gun - Image: Creative Commons]
Armed with machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition, a small group of soldiers descended on the emus. It did not go well.
The soldiers woefully underestimated their opponents. Numerous attempts to shoot the emus went poorly, with most of the birds scattering into the wilderness unharmed.
On the second day of the assault, the soldiers decided to stage an ambush, lying in wait near a dam. Despite unloading hundreds and hundreds of bullets at close to a thousand emus, less than a dozen were killed.
One of the soldiers, Major G.P.W. Meredith, recalls that “each mob has its leader… 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 out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”
With the emus smarter – and faster – than the soldiers had anticipated, Meredith and his men were eventually defeated and recalled back to Canberra.
The settlers made several more attempts to get the soldiers to return and fight but the federal government refused. The emus had won.
Meredith later told a local paper, “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world. They could face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”