Harvest drawing to a close brought to my mind an historical Western Australian event of epic proportions.
Post WWI, many Australian and British veterans took up parcels of land to farm in remote regions of Western Australia. When the Great Depression hit in 1929 farmers were encouraged to plant more wheat, with the promise of government subsidies (which never came). Inland drought and annual migration bought wildlife to the grain rich paddocks and livestock soaks of marginal farming land around Campion and Walgoolan.
Some of the older people in WA still recall the emergency in the second half of 1932: a wildlife plague that reached such desperate levels that troops were called to (f)arms, under Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, Sergeant S. McMurray, and Gunner J. O'Halloran. Settlers familiar with war requested Lewis automatic machine guns to brace themselves against the tide of 20,000 ravenous Murchison yallabiddies (more commonly known as the humble emu).
The Great Emu War was so hotly anticipated that a Fox Movietone cinematographer was dispatched to capture the battle for the rest of the world, but in what can possibly be described as a comedy of errors, the war against the emus was largely thwarted, not only by the desultory behaviour of the emus themselves, but also by weather, equipment, and morale.
On the first day of battle, when the military set up to begin their attack, 'timely' rain fell and the birds, which had been milling about on a Campion farm, scattered.
The next attempt at engagement took place on 2 November. 50 or so yallabiddies were found relaxing around a dam, but at a distance too far for the machine guns. 50 locals, who volunteered as beaters, attempted to herd the birds in closer to the guns, but the enemy split into two groups and ran away.
After the first full day of battle little more than a dozen emus were killed, putting an extremely small dent in their 20,000 strong feathered army.
Two days later 1000 of the enemy were observed advancing on the troops in a fluke of military position. Fearing a recurrence of the events of two days before, the gunners held fire until they could see the whites of the enemy's eyes. Unfortunately one of the guns jammed and again, only a handful of emus were dispatched. The rest took off and weren't seen for the rest of the day.
Major Meredith gave a pep talk to the troops: "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. They are like Zulus."
After two more unsuccessful attempts in the unusual war, Major Meredith ordered the party to pick up and move south, where the birds were anecdotally said to be more tame. It did little good.
A gun was mounted to the back of a truck, but that was no use. The birds could easily outrun the vehicle, and the gunner couldn't fire with the ceaseless bouncing about.
Nonplussed by their lacklustre performance, the military and guns were withdrawn by Sir George Pearce on 8 November, but four days later urged back into battle by the WA Premier James Mitchell. This time the troops were a little more fortified for battle. National newspapers had been running jokes about the uselessness and ignominy of the operation. They were a more successful this time. Enemy deaths reached a reported 100 per week.
On 10 December the War was declared over, but not won.
The result of the Great Emu War was a few thousand non-human deaths over two campaigns.
The yallabiddy numbers were strong throughout the Wheatbelt from 1934 to 1943, until an existing emu-culling bounty system was given financial incentive. In one six month period of 1934, more than 57,000 bounty claims were issued to civilians.
The movie was never made.
© Geire Kami. All Rights Reserved. Australia 2017.