The army in the south

The commander of the Ethiopian forces in the Shire area of Ethiopia – Ras Imru - had little knowledge of the outcome of the battles that had taken place to the west of his position. Due to messages taking several days to reach him, he was unaware that the First Battle of TembienAmba Aradam and the Second Battle of Tembien had resulted in an overall Italian victory with the beaten Ethiopian forces in retreat and in disarray. His forces now remained the only organised Ethiopian resistance between the Italians and the Ethiopian capital – Addis Ababa.

On 29 February, the Italian commander, Marshal Badoglio, keen to capitalise on his previous victories and keep the Ethiopians on the back foot, launched an attack on Imru’s forces at Shire, using his II and IV corps.

However, Imru had already decided to vacate the area in order to avoid being trapped.

Map detailing the movements of the Italian and Ethiopian forces at Shire.

Italian troops during the conflict.

The pursuit of Imru

The pursuing Italian forces advanced in two separate columns – II Corps from near Axium and IV corps from the Eritrean border. Both groups intended to surround and trap Imru’s forces.  However, progress was slow due to inhospitable and rough terrain and a lack of roads. Additionally, II Corps found themselves under attack whilst out in the open, with their forces stretched out in a long column.

Sensing an opportunity, the Ethiopians attacked fiercely and were only driven off when the Italians resorted to forming old-fashioned infantry squares to concentrate their fire, and Italian artillery and air support was called in to assist.   

Italian soldiers on the move.

Badoglio, frustrated at the delays, managed to get his II Corps moving again only for them to run into the rear-guard of Imru’s forces. Despite their best efforts to trap the Ethiopians, by the time the Italians had brought in their artillery and air-support, Imru’s forces had slipped away and once again, escaped the trap. His army – largely intact and in good fighting order – continued its retreat with the intention to link up with Emperor Haile Selassie’s forces.

Compared the damage done to the Ethiopian forces in the previous battles on the Northern Front – where they had suffered ten casualties for every one Italian, at Shire, the disparity was much less: Four Ethiopian casualties for every one Italian. Although still costly, by the standards seen so far in this conflict, it was a notably better outcome for the Ethiopians. Although things were to get worse for Imru’s army.

An excellent photo capturing the essence of many of the Ethiopian fighters during te conflict: Courageous but ill-equipped to face a modern army.


Although the Battle of the Shire was effectively over, Badoglio was still intent on inflicting further damage or even destroying Imru’s forces. With II and IV Corps unable to achieve this, he turned to his air force to finish the job. From 3 – 4 March, they dropped over 80 tons of bombs – a mixture of incendiary and high explosive – on Imru’s retreating forces as they traversed the Tekezé River, followed by more attacks in which the Italians dropped Mustard Gas, and launched strafing attacks with their fighters. When the II Corps eventually reached the Tekezé River themselves, they witnessed the ghastly sight of thousands of putrefying corpses – dead Ethiopian soldiers who had been left where they fell as the Imru’s forces hurriedly retreated.

The air attacks had inflicted enormous damage and Imru’s army now ceased to exist as an effective fighting force. Although he escaped the Italian air attacks with around 10,000 men, most of these – traumatised or tired of fighting – simply deserted, and by the time Imru reached his Emperor, he was accompanied by only around 300 men.

The Italian Air Force was particularly effective during this battle.

With Imru, Kass and Mulugeta’s armies now all destroyed, the path to the Ethiopian Capital – Addis Ababa – lay effectively open. The only meaningful Ethiopian force that remained to try and halt them were the troops under the personal command of Emperor Selassie himself.

Badoglio recognised the dilemma now facing Selassie: 

​With time now on his side, Badoglio carefully prepared his forces for the next – and possibly final – stage of the conflict. New roads were built, and forts constructed to guard the Italian conquered areas. The Italians paid local Azebu Oromo tribesman to patrol these areas to ensure their supply lines remained intact. This also freed up all available Italian forces for the forthcoming battle.