Wednesday, November 5, 2014

November, 1932

This week in 1932, a war was fought... One that would see the Australian military suffer what may be the most bizarre defeat in the history of armed conflict.

In the midst of the worldwide depression, Australia's Summer wheat crops were attacked by a marauding hoard of roughly 20,000 emus. The birds found it was easier to eat grain off cultivated rows than forage for it, and settled in.

"Our ancestors were Tyrannosaurs. Who's going to stop us?"

Emus are not small objects. After its cousin, the ostrich, it's the second biggest bird on Earth. They can't fly, but can kick viciously and run at over 30 mph. Their claws easily shred wire fences, and they're big enough to jump over or knock down most wooden ones. They can grow to a height of 6'6" and weigh up to 125 lbs.

In summary, they're not going to be threatened by a scarecrow. Or much else.

The farmers appealed to the government, and the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, felt this was an excellent way of both assisting the farmers and getting his troops some target practice. Machine guns had helped break the Western Front stalemate in 1918, so would be ideal for mowing down a few overgrown sparrows.

They were just birds. What could possibly go wrong?

Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery was the man tasked with boldly leading the expedition. He was given a group of soldiers armed with the latest machine guns, plenty of ammo, and orders to eradicate the birds.

He was also told to bring the feathers back for hats.

Upon arrival, the farmers and Major Meredith set up an ambush, hoping to kill most of the birds in one stroke. The farmers drove the huge flock toward where the soldiers were hiding... Only to have the emus break up into multiple small groups instead of staying in a large one.

Out of thousands, the machine guns killed... only 12 birds. More were wounded, but the soldiers found that shooting an emu didn't necessarily slow it down. In fact, anything short of hitting a vital organ just made them mad.

"Don't fuck with us, you overgrown monkeys."

Undeterred, Meredith courageously set up another ambush, this time cornering roughly 1000 birds near a dam. His men opened fire at close range... again with only 12 dead birds after much shooting. And one of the pricey machine guns broke.

An ornithologist later wrote that "The machine-gunners' dreams of point blank fire into masses of emus were soon dissipated. The emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of military equipment uneconomic." In other words, the birds quickly scattered, and were damn near impossible to hit.

With the marauding emus showing no signs of leaving, Meredith changed tactics. In a burst of inspiration (likely from that great American strategist Wile E. Coyote), he borrowed a truck from a farmer, mounted a machine gun on it, and sent it racing into the flock

Sounds like something from a comedy flick at this point, huh?

"Trust me. I'm a professional."

To the Major's horror, the birds were easily able to outrun the truck. And, as they drove over the uneven landscape, the vehicle bounced so much that his men were unable to aim, or even properly work, the gun.

This experiment in motorized warfare came to an abrupt end when a heroic kamikaze emu turned around and ran directly into them. It's body jammed the suspension, causing the truck to spin out of control and destroy a farmer's fence. History didn't record who paid for the damages.

After a few days of similar front-line combat, Major Meredith sent a report estimating 200-500 birds killed, though the number was likely closer to 50. He also credited his opponents, who were able to keep running in spite of multiple wounds. "If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world" he wrote. "They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks."

He also noted that his own forces had suffered no casualties.

One soldier later gave this assessment of the enemy's strategy: "The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, 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 up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety."

The good Major withdrew in defeat, but was ordered back. This time his forces were somewhat more successful in culling birds... But still unable to seriously dent their numbers, or get them to leave the area. Some basic number crunching found that, on his best day, it took an unsustainable amount of costly ammunition to bring down 1 emu. It was a war of attrition, and the emus had the numbers. Faced with being beaten by birds, Defence Minister Pearce ordered a withdrawal and wished the farmers good luck.

Eventually, as news of the heroic military operation got around, there was a debate in the Australian government. It featured this memorable exchange:

Mr. Thorby: "Who is responsible for the farce of hunting emus with machine guns mounted on lorries? Is the Defence Department meeting the cost?"

Prime Minister Lyons: "I have been told the Defence Department will not be paying the bill."

Mr. James: "Is a medal to be struck for this war?"

Another minister later commented that if such a medal were struck, it should be awarded to the emus.

Although the farming community would request military intervention against the birds in subsequent years, the lesson had been learned and no further emu wars were launched.

Today, along with the kangaroo, the emu is one of Australia's national symbols, showing just which side came out ahead in the brief conflict.

"Primates! You know where you can stick your opposable thumbs?"


Anonymous said...

This just makes dinosaurs all the more terrifying.

Ivan Ilyich said...

A collision with a large asteroid should do it.

bunkywise said...

What a cool story. I'll have to make sure to share it with an emu who lives down the road from me, although I'm not sure I want to give him/her any ideas, now that I think of it.

Heidi said...

Absolutely brilliant post! Emus definitely won that battle. The term "Kamikaze Emu" will stay with me for a very long time.

Candi said...

I remember the Cracked article that mentioned this! It's still hilarious!

Pam Marshall said...

Military strategist Wile E. Coyote. Love that. I think he's still in the Pentagon somewhere.

PGYx said...

I love the history lessons you share! Thanks.

tbunni said...

@ Pam Marshall
Wile E. Coyote may be in the Pentagon, but the Roadrunner and I hold all the shares in Acme...

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would have happened if they had targeted the "Emu commanders" rather than shooting randomly.

clairesmum said...

if public school history curriculums included some of these strange but true stories (presuming that a yak herder is an excellent fact checker) i bet Americans would know more history!

sgs said...

If you like rabbits better than emus, there's Napoleon's greatest rout ...

Vicki said...

Sgs, thanks for that link! It appears that Napoleon needed the Holy Hand Grenade!

Loren Pechtel said...

Why not make it a training exercise? You have 20,000 live targets for the snipers.

Anonymous said...

But now everyone is anti-gluten, so who really had the last laugh?

Anonymous said...

So then the farmers decided to switch from wheat to cassowary plums...

Anonymous said...

This is just hilariously incredible

08armydoc said...

Oh geez, one of the funniest stories I've heard in awhile

Mrs. Widget said...

When I tell about the truck, it is "one emu decided to take one for the team." and move my head back and forth like a bird.

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