Not Made Up: The Emu War of 1932

Emus, worse than cyclists

This was not taught to me in high school History and I have no idea why.


Daddy emu with chicks: Photo by Glowess

Many native animals have been considered “pests” by farmers since European settlement in Australia. Emus, for example, eat grain, which is a problem in the arid wheat belts toward the inland of our continent, where migrating herds of emus may sweep through an area eating and pooping and generally making nuisances of themselves. Western Australia (as a colony, and later, a state) has had problems with emus seemingly since its inception; it’s the only state or territory where emus are classified as pests today. In other areas, they are protected by native wildlife legislation, and often farmed for their meat, leather and more commonly, their fat, which is rendered down into “Emu Oil” for use in cosmetics and skincare and all that business. Emu oil is believed to have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and is sometimes applied to epithelialised wounds to aid healing.

But back in the day, the farmers of Western Australia weren’t interested in capitalising on the all-to-abundant emus. Instead, the state government ordered a cull of emus – coordinated by the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce. Regrettably, there are no known photographs of Sir George standing triumphantly atop the corpse of one of his fallen avian foes.


Ray Owen of Pickering Brook, W.A., after a rare victory for the humans.

Unfortunately for Sir George and the veterans of World War One he commanded, the equipment the Australians had purchased (including two Lewis Automatic Machine Guns and 10,000 rounds for said guns) wasn’t enough to keep up with the wily emus. First, an ambush near the town of Campion failed to lure 50 or so emus into the sights of the soldiers. The birds scattered when locals tried to herd them towards the waiting infantry. Then, when Pearce ordered a machine gun to be mounted on a truck to chase the birds, the emus ran too fast for the Jeep to keep up with them, and the rough, unfinished roads were so bumpy to travel across that the bloke with the gun couldn’t shoot at all.

Overall, the Great Emu War lasted around one month, and is reported to have claimed between 300 and 9,860 emu lives, without human casualties. Major G.P.W. Meredith compared the emus to Zulu warriors and tanks. Many emu feathers were used to adorn the slouch hats of the Australian Light Horse troops, who thoroughly enjoyed telling foreigners that the feathers were “kangaroo feathers”.


 Trooper A.C. Wooster, 2nd Light Horse, killed in action 2 November 1917.

Picture from the Australian War Memorial.


Picture by Liz, 2011

It is worth noting that emus do not seem at first glance to be formidable adversaries. Pictured above is a thing that happened to me a few years ago while working in the field.  There are no fences on either side of this road, it’s all mallee bushland that the emus live in, and while we patiently drove along at ~10km/hr for over twenty minutes trying not to scare them too much, they point-blank refused to either leave or share the road. Emus are either not very sensible or very, very rude.


References and Further Reading:

Pickering Brook Heritage Group, “The Emu War”

 Australian War Memorial, “Kangaroo Feathers and the Australian Light Horse”

General Emu Information



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