Monday, 15 January 2018

Eccentric Earth Episode Three Show Notes

Welcome to the latest show notes for Eccentric Earth, where I will include the research for each episode (essentially my script), along with a number of photographs and documents.

Episode Three - The Emu War

After the end of World War One many of Australia’s returning soldiers chose to become farmers, moving to Western Australia marginal areas for work, along with a number of British servicemen who chose to make a new life for themselves in Australia.

Things went well for these farmers until 1929, when the Wall Street Crash occurred. Due to the crash many countries suffered from economic depression. Australia was no exception. The country suffered from years of high unemployment levels, plunging incomes, and a lack of economic growth.

Following the crash farmers were encouraged to increase their wheat crops, with the government promising—and failing to deliver—assistance in the form of subsidies. In spite of the recommendations and the promised subsidies, wheat prices continued to fall, and by October 1932 matters were becoming intense, with the farmers preparing to harvest the season's crop while simultaneously threatening to refuse to load the wheat.

Before a resolution to this problem could be reached, things were complicated with the arrival oif 20,000 emus.

Modern day Emu migration.
Emus regularly migrate across large areas of Western Australia after their breeding season, heading to the coast from the inland regions. Due to farmers having cleared large areas of land, and having increased water supplies for their livestock, the emus found that the cultivated lands were a good habitat.

The Emus began to foray into the farmers territory—in particular the marginal farming land around Chandler and Walgoolan. The emus descended on the farmland, consuming as much of the crop as they could, and leaving what they did not eat useless to the farmers.

The Emus were not the only concern for farmers at the time. Thanks to the Emus breaking through barriers and fences the crops also fell victim to other pests, such as rabbits.

With their crops being destroyed, and the Emus continuing their advance, a number of farmers were selected to meet with Sir George Pearce, the Australian Minister of Defence.

Sir George Pearce, Australian Minister of Defence.
Due to many of the farmers being veterans of World War I, they were well aware of the effectiveness of machine guns, and they requested that the weapons be deployed to deal with the problem. The minister agreed, although with a number of conditions attached: the guns were to only be used by military personnel, and troop transport was to be financed by the Western Australian government, however, the farmers would provide food and accommodation for the soldiers, and they would have to pay for the ammunition.

The Government also supported the deployment of military personnel on the grounds that the birds would make good target practice for their soldiers, although it has also been argued that some in the government may have viewed this as a way of being seen to be helping the Western Australian farmers, and towards that end a cinematographer from Fox Movietone was enlisted to document events.

Military involvement was due to begin in October 1932. The operation was conducted under the command of Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, with Meredith commanding soldiers Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J. O'Hallora, armed with two Lewis automatic machine guns and 10,000 rounds of 

The operation was delayed, however, by a period of rainfall that caused the emus to scatter over a wider area. The rain ceased by 2 November 1932, at which point the troops were deployed with orders to assist the farmers and, according to a newspaper account, to collect 100 emu skins so that their feathers could be used to make hats for light horsemen.

On 2 November the men travelled to Campion, where some 50 emus were sighted. As the birds were out of range of the guns, the local settlers attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but the birds split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult to target. Whilst the first volley from the machine guns was ineffective due to the range, a second round of gunfire was able to kill a number of the birds. Later the same day a small flock was encountered, and close to a dozen birds were killed.

The next significant event was on 4 November. Meredith had established an ambush near a local dam, and more than 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time the gunners waited until the birds were in close proximity before opening fire. The gun jammed after only twelve birds were killed and the remainder scattered before any more could be killed. No more birds were sighted that day.

In the days that followed Meredith chose to move further south where the birds were "reported to be fairly tame", but there was only limited success in spite of his efforts. By the fourth day of the campaign, army observers noted that "each pack seems to have its own leader now - a big black-plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach."

Major Meredith with his vehicle mounted machine gun.
At one stage Meredith even went so far as to mount one of the guns on a truck: a move that proved to be ineffective, as the truck was unable to gain on the birds, and the ride was so rough that the gunner was unable to fire any shots. 

By 8 November, six days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired. 50 birds had been killed. Meredith's official report noted that his men had suffered no casualties.

Summarising the event, ornithologist Dominic Serventy commented:

‘The machine-gunners' dreams of point blank fire into serried 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 the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.’

On 8 November, representatives in the Australian House of Representatives discussed the operation. Following the negative coverage of the events in the local media, that included claims that "only a few" emus had died, George Pearce withdrew the military personnel and the guns on 8 November.

After the withdrawal, Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus and commented on the striking manoeuvrability of the emus, even while badly wounded.

‘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 could not stop.’

After the withdrawal of the military, the emu attacks on crops continued. Farmers again asked for support, citing the hot weather and drought that brought emus invading farms in the thousands. James Mitchell, the Premier of Western Australia lent his strong support to renewal of the military assistance. Additionally, a report from the Base Commander indicated that 300 emus had been killed in the initial operation, more than initially believed.

Acting on the requests and the Base Commander's report, by 12 November the Minister of Defence approved a resumption of military efforts. He defended the decision in the senate, explaining why the soldiers were necessary to combat the serious agricultural threat of the large emu population. Although the military had agreed to lend the guns to the Western Australian government on the expectation that they would provide the necessary people, Meredith was once again placed in the field due to an apparent lack of experienced machine gunners in the state.

Taking to the field on 13 November 1932, the military found a degree of success over the first two days, with approximately 40 emus killed. The third day, 15 November, proved to be far less successful, but by 2 December the guns were accounting for approximately 100 emus per week. Meredith was recalled on 10 December, and in his report he claimed 986 kills with 9,860 rounds, at a rate of exactly 10 rounds per confirmed kill. In addition, Meredith claimed 2,500 wounded birds had died as a result of the injuries that they had sustained.

Troops and equipment were finally withdrawn when the public opinion on the matter changed, with people no longer seeing this as an important cause that would help to save valuable farmland and crops, but as a costly folly. Australia had lost its war against the Emu.

Media coverage of the Emu War.

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