The Emperor's Gift
by Jonathan Edelstein
Author's Note: In 1935, Ethiopia was the only African country besides Liberia that wasn't a
colony or protectorate of a European power. Italy, which ruled Eritrea to the north and Italian
Somaliland to the east, had coveted the country since the 1890s, and still smarted from the
stinging defeat that Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II had inflicted on an invading Italian army at
Adua in 1896. So it was hardly surprising that Mussolini, taking advantage of a border incident
and an inconclusive League of Nations arbitration, again invaded Ethiopia in October 1935 with
the intent of making it part of Italy's African empire.
The resulting Second Italo-Ethiopian War was, like the Spanish Civil War that began the
following year, one of the precursors to World War II, in which the fascist bloc tested its power
and flexed its muscles. In our history, Ethiopia put up a strong resistance at first, culminating in
the "Christmas Offensive" of 1935-36, but by February 1936 the war had turned decisively in
Italy's favor, leading to the fall of Addis Ababa on May 5 and the exile of Emperor Haile
Selassie. But what if the Ethiopians hadn't fought alone--what if the same kind of international
brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War had made it to Ethiopia in time for the Christmas
It might have gone something like this.
The Ethiopian officer cantered over on a gray horse, shouting in Amharic.
Sergeant Tom Hairston could only make out a word or two. He'd picked up a little
Amharic in the month he'd been with the Second International Brigade, but there'd been far too
little time for fluency. He tried English, which didn't work, but French did. Even then, the
conversation was difficult. Neither Hairston nor the officer spoke much French, and Hairston
wondered, not for the first time, how they'd all fight Mussolini together when they could hardly
even talk to each other.
"Ras Seyoum wants you up there!" the officer said, pointing to a ridge-line about a
hundred feet up and half a mile away. That, at least, Sergeant Hairston could understand. "Up
there for tomorrow."
Before the sergeant could answer, there was a noise from the Fiat tank at his left, and
another man--another soldier, though he was wearing overalls and holding a wrench--lifted
himself halfway out the hatch. "Up there?" he said, pointing where the officer had done. "You
got a dozen horses to move this thing? Dozen more for the other one, and a cart for all this
junk?" He gestured at the parts littered on the ground, captured along with the two tanks at the
Hairston didn't think the officer understood--the mechanic had spoken English--but it
was obvious to anyone that the man wasn't happy. The officer shouted back in a mix of Amharic
and French, something about Ras Seyoum and treason, and the soldiers leaning against the tank
and smoking responded in kind.
The noise brought Captain Robeson out of his tent, and he, too, didn't sound happy.
"Shut up!" he called to the soldiers, and when he turned to the officer, his expression didn't look
much kinder. "It's Christmas," he said, and repeated the word in Amharic. "Gäna. The men are
making dinner. They'll get mad if you move them today. Can't you get the Greeks up there? It's
not Christmas yet for them."
"Ras Seyoum wants everyone up there. He wants to move quickly in the morning." As
Hairston watched, the officer pointed over the ridge to the unseen Italian positions east of Melfa.
"We take them there and Debra Amba, we'll cut them in half." His face betrayed anger at having
to explain himself to a foreign captain. Whatever he'd expected from the internationals, he hadn't
anticipated that they'd be as hard to corral as Ras Seyoum's own noblemen.
Hairston saw the look as well as Robeson did, but he saw the wisdom in moving up to the
ridge--from there, the troops could command the valley and jump off quickly once the attack
started. He knew as well as anyone what hopes were riding on this: Mussolini had caught
Ethiopia napping when he invaded in early October and had had things his own way the first two
months of the war, but now the Ethiopians' counterattack--their Christmas Offensive--was
picking up steam. The sergeant privately thought it had maybe one chance in five of coming off,
but smaller chances than that had happened--after all, wasn't he here?
Robeson evidently agreed. He made a show of deliberating a little longer, and then said,
"Tell Ras Seyoum we'll go." The officer rode away satisfied.
"'Course we don't all have to go at once," the captain added after the Ethiopian was
safely away. "Hairston, take a platoon and start digging in up there. We'll make sure you get
dinner--the rest of us will move up tonight when Harlem's done with those tanks." He rapped on
the Fiat's turret with the butt of a pistol. "Hey, Harlem, I thought you could fix anything."
Harlem--hell of a thing to be called when half the brigade was from there--re-emerged
and assumed a pose of injured dignity. "I can fix anything, Cap. Problem is making it stay fixed
more than half a mile. The Ethiopians did more damage to these tanks bringing them here than
they did capturing them, and those parts are all I got. We're not gonna get any more--it was hard
enough to get ourselves here."
"You got that right," Hairston agreed, shivering as he remembered the days on rough seas
and the overland journey from Berbera.
"I get it, Harlem," Robeson said, "but Ras Seyoum wants those tanks in action tomorrow.
We need a Christmas miracle from you--just think of it like we promised Haile Selassie a
present and we don't want to disappoint him."
"It ain't his Christmas, Cap, But I'll do the best I can."
Hairston watched the captain go, and then he went to round up his men and do the best he