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
From the ridge, Hairston could see the ground for miles ahead: craggy mountains, stony
scrubland, clumps of trees. He leaned on his shovel, and beside him, Private Lewis took that as
his cue to do the same. "Done more digging than fighting so far," Lewis said.
"One war's a lot like another, ain't it?"
"Damn right." Lewis and Hairston were among the few in the brigade who'd fought in the
big war in Europe, and digging trenches came more naturally than it did to the younger men.
They smoked for a while and looked out over the valley. Lewis pointed toward the other
side. "See 'em over there?"
Hairston followed where he was pointing and saw smoke coming from what he guessed
were Italian positions. "Not even trying to hide, are they?"
"They don't care if we know where they are. They know they've got all the artillery."
Lewis threw his cigarette to the ground and crushed it under his boot heel. "Wish they'd captured
some field guns for Harlem to fix instead of those tanks."
"The tanks'll help. If we can get 'em across in the morning." Hairston, too, wasn't sure
how they'd get the tanks across the valley in the face of the Italian guns. Maybe Ras Seyoum had
a plan; if so, it hadn't been vouchsafed to the men in the line.
They went back to digging, and a rough trench line began to appear. About noon, they got
unexpected help: a troop of Ethiopian soldiers arrived to take over part of the line, led by an
officer named Tewolde that Hairston guessed to be their version of a lieutenant. To his further
surprise, the officer had some English--learned, he said, working as a messenger for a British
importer in Addis Ababa.
"Happy First Christmas," he said. Hairston had heard the word before--it was what the
Ethiopian soldiers had come to call the internationals' Christmas, with the second one being their
own twelve days later.
"And may it bring victory," Hairston said, and sent Lewis off with Tewolde to find places
for the new arrivals. Lewis had more patience for talking through an interpreter than he did,
which he learned all over again a few minutes later.
"Addisu there is a slave, did you know that?" Lewis asked. "Did you know they kept
"If Mussolini wins, they'll all be slaves. It'll be Jim Crow here like it is in Eritrea. You
know the natives can't even walk on the main street there?"
"That's not an answer." Lewis might be a private, but being fifty-five years old gave him
freedom even when speaking to sergeants. "What would Lenin say about fighting for an emperor
under a nobleman who's a slaveowner?"
"Ask Cap. He can tell you." Robeson could, too. He was full of quotes from this and that,
and he always had some reason why feudalism was a stage a country had to go through on the
way to communism and why standing up against the imperialists made sense even if they were
fighting alongside feudal levies. Hairston, for his part, didn't care--he wasn't a communist, and
he was here to fight for Africa, not for Marx. Africa for the Africans at home and abroad--that
one sentence of Garvey's said more to him than Lenin had done in his whole life.
"Funny it's Christmas," Lewis said. "Grandma used to come over Christmas and tell
stories. One of them was about how the tribes used to raid each other and sell the prisoners to the
slave ships. Guess it's not that different here." He gestured further down the ridge toward another
set of positions to the south. "Maybe we should have left this to the Greeks. Bet they don't care."
"They don't have slaves in Greece," said a third soldier, one from another squad who
Hairston didn't recognize.
"You know the Greeks?" Hairston used the same shorthand as everyone else. They
weren't all Greek in the First International Brigade, just like not everyone in the Second was a
black American--there were Serbs and Bulgarians too, and even Christians from Syria and
Egypt--but Greek was their common language, so the First was the Greek Brigade the way the
Second was the Black Brigade.
"I missed the boat from New York, so I got another one to Alexandria and came with
them through the Sudan. They're not bad people."
"Sudan's bandit country."
"Some. But there were enough Greeks all in one place that they didn't bother us. Not like
you, I hear."
"No," Hairston said, and he remembered landing at midnight to avoid being interned by
the British Somaliland authorities, the desperate journey through the Ogaden desert, the fights
with Afar raiders. Like Harlem had said, it was a miracle that they were here at all.
No, that way lies despair. "We'll have a lot of say if we win this war, and we can help
sort out slavery. But first we have to win, so let's get some more work done before dinner."
Dinner came at four o'clock in big tureens hauled up to the ridge by groaning soldiers.
Hairston made sure it got shared out to the Ethiopians. Lewis did the serving, and with
Tewolde's aid, continued his conversation with the Amhara troopers. He was probably trying to
instill class-consciousness in them: good luck with that. Hairston would rather have told them
about Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, and maybe Cetshwayo to stiffen their spines for
The food wasn't like any Christmas dinner Hairston had had before. Robeson had bought
a cow and some chickens in the market at Abbi Addi, so at least there was that. But the rest:
sheets of foamy injera, gravy made from bitter teff, vegetables that Hairston didn't recognize and
that tasted like nothing he'd ever eaten.
"Mama would make ham and greens," someone complained, and Hairston remembered
the same thing: cornbread, yams, turkey, his mother's sweet potato pie. But this was Christmas
dinner, damn it--injera might not be cornbread, but it was the closest thing to home he'd had
since he went off to fight. Other memories flooded in: his apartment, the smell of his wife's
perfume when he came home from work, his children's voices.
He wasn't the only one remembering. Some of the men were crying. Hairston pretended
not to see and wondered if anyone down the hill was crying too, and what was happening in all
the other companies of the Black Brigade scattered across the front.
He shook his head clear and took his plate over to a log where Lewis and Tewolde were
sitting. "There are no slaves in Addis Ababa," Tewolde was saying urgently. "The emperor has
decreed against slavery, and the past emperors too. But in the country, the princes do what they
want--they always have."
"Ha," thought Hairston, "maybe Cap isn't as smart as he thinks. Maybe it's feudalism that
needs to go first." But the thought whipsawed him back to the Ethiopian soldiers. He might be
having a homesick Christmas, but at least he'd volunteered for this rather than being a serf
drafted from his master's estate. Maybe his grandfather, who'd run away to join the Union army
in '63, would have understood.
A branch crackled behind Hairston and he saw that Captain Robeson had come up. "Just
wanted to make sure you got your dinner," he said, "and to tell you to get ready. We'll start
moving the other men up around midnight."
"The tanks too?"
"Harlem's got the engines fixed, and he's working on making sure the treads stay
together. He says we owe him Christmas dinner every day for a week."
Both men laughed, and that seemed to make Robeson notice the other soldiers'
melancholy. "Let's have some carols," he called, and launched right into Silent Night.
Hairston just listened for the first few measures--damn, Robeson could sing. Then he
joined in, though his own voice was nothing to write home about, and a beat later, so did the
By the time Robeson started on O Come All Ye Faithful, everyone was singing. Even the
Ethiopians, who didn't know the words and whose Christmas wouldn't come for twelve days,
picked up the melody. It was still Advent for the Greeks in the next trenches over, but Hairston
heard music from there, too. Nothing in English, nothing he recognized, but old kalanda in their
own language. He wasn't entirely surprised when Robeson knew one of them and joined his
voice to theirs, nor was he surprised when the Greeks left off caroling to listen. Whatever the
language, the captain could sing.
Hairston wandered past the trench line and looked at the distant lights of the Italian
positions. He couldn't hear anything, not this far away, but maybe the Italians were singing too.
They were the enemy. They were also the only ones in a thousand miles who shared this
Christmas with the Second Brigade.
He turned to see that Robeson had gone back to the main camp. The caroling died down,
and then the conversation. He went to practice Amharic with Tewolde before going to sleep. The
sun set behind the ridge, and from down the hill he heard the growl of an engine being tested.
Hairston put himself on the first watch and stretched out to sleep at eight. He woke to the
sound of gunfire.
His first thought, still half-asleep, was that some Ethiopian nobleman had gone looking
for glory and started the battle early, but the noise was much too close, and so were the shouts
from the people on watch. There were figures in Italian uniform looming over the trench line, and
that brought the sergeant instantly awake.
He rolled to his feet and saw a blacked-up Italian soldier charging at him. It would be a
trench fight. Hairston had hated trench fights in the big war, and he doubted they'd be any better
this time around.
He reached for his rifle, and had a split second to realize that his bayonet wasn't fixed.
The Italian's was, and the starlight glinted off the places where he hadn't put enough charcoal on
it. Hairston stumbled back, parrying desperately with his rifle barrel, and his eyes passed over a
shovel that someone had left lying. He ducked, seized it with his left hand, and swung. It took the
Italian in the forehead, and he reeled back two steps. Hairston shot him from the hip and he fell
in a spray of blood.
Out of danger, at least for the moment, he tried to make sense of the confusion. There had
been no artillery fire, at least--that would have spoiled the surprise--but the trenches were
swarming with shadowy Italians and Eritrean askaris. He grabbed a man and sent him running
downhill to tell Robeson--not that the captain wouldn't have heard already--and the thought
flashed through his mind that Ras Seyoum had been right to want men guarding the ridgeline.
Lewis was shot. Hairston saw it happen from yards away, saw the old man stumble and
fall backward with a cry of pain. The askari who'd shot him loomed forward with rifle raised, but
an Ethiopian lunged with his bayonet and stabbed him in the side. The enemy folded over with a
groan and fell near where Lewis lay, and Hairston ran up to oppose the others who'd made their
way into the trenches behind him. The Ethiopian soldier moved up at his side, and he realized it
was Addisu, the slave, fighting for his life and fighting so that his country wouldn't be
"Yes, my grandfather would understand," the sergeant thought. In spite of it all, America
had been his country. Maybe Garvey wasn't right about everything, either.
He rushed at another askari, who fell back, and felt that the pressure was slackening.
After a second, he realized why. To his right, the platoon's machine gun was stuttering, taking a
toll of the enemy climbing the hill, and some of the Italian soldiers had left off their assault on
the trench to flank it. He grabbed a few men--including Addisu, because in the darkness
Americans and Ethiopians were one--and crouched low and moved through the shadows to
protect the gun.
Hairston's foot caught on something, and he looked down to see a corpse lying by the
remains of his Christmas dinner. Bullets crackled around him, and one grazed his side. It burned,
but he'd deal with that later. He fired into the darkness and one of the Italians attacking the gun
position cried out. Hairston leveled his bayonet and led his men to meet the others.
The moon came out from behind a cloud, and Hairston glanced down the slope as he
parried an Italian bayonet. He lunged, stabbing the enemy in the chest, but he felt despair. There
were too many attackers. Even if the attack on the gun was driven off, the men on the ridge
would be overwhelmed in a few more minutes. It was still Christmas Day, and he remembered
that of all the people on this battlefield, the Italians were the only ones who shared that.
Shadows moved on the right and gunfire came from behind the Italians, followed seconds
later by loud Greek voices. Those of the First Brigade who weren't engaged were charging and
shouting war cries. And there were more shouts from the western hillside, the voices of two
hundred men, and with them the rumble of treads.
The two Fiats charged over the trench line, machine guns firing, Harlem leaning out of
the leading turret and lighting up the ridge with tracers from his rifle. A couple of Italian soldiers,
just come up to the ridge, saw the looming tanks too late and barely had time to scream before
they went under the treads and screamed again. Hairston had seen that happen in the big war too.
He wanted to be sick.
The attackers fell back, but they weren't done. The sergeant saw shadows moving quickly
through the darkness, aiming for the rear of the tanks. Hairston shot one and saw him fall, and
another crouched down to take something from his hand. A charge, Hairston realized.
"Oh, no you don't," he said, and raised his fist over his head to signal the men. "Move,
The Italians got close. The Black Brigade infantry caught them only a few feet from the
Fiats. But they caught them, and then they were too busy fighting for their lives to attack the
tanks any more.
Other soldiers were also coming up behind to protect the armor, and now, as the tanks
moved forward, the enemy did break. The Italians ran first. The askaris, not as used to facing
tanks, fought a moment longer, but as their allies ran and more of the Black Brigade came up,
they fled too.
Hairston fell to his knees and watched them go, but as he did, two Ethiopians rode up on
horses: the officer from that morning and Ras Seyoum himself. "Keep going!" Ras Seyoum
shouted. "Keep going! Give them what they thought they'd give us!" Tewolde and Robeson
echoed the order, and Hairston got to his feet and moved his men out toward the valley. To the
right, the Greek Brigade was moving too, and so were the Ethiopians all along the ridge, soldiers,
townsmen and feudal levies.
He knew a moment's amusement as he followed behind the Fiats: this would get the
tanks across before the Italian artillery spotters could see them. "Haile Selassie's Christmas
present," he said out loud. Maybe they would deliver Melfa and Debra Amba to the emperor gift-wrapped. Maybe they would really cut the Italian army in half as Ras Seyoum had hoped.
Sergeant Hairston raised his fist overhead again, signaling his men to close behind him as
they moved down the tracer-lit slope. It might still be Christmas when they got to the Italian
lines. They'd used up too many miracles already, but maybe, before morning, God could spare
another. It was all a soldier could ask.