This is military history with a twist. The main character, Koos Jacobs’ background is not conventional and the 1914 South African setting and his coloured upbringing adds piquancy to the tale of his being mistaken for white and recruited as an officer. Already isolated, his transfer to intelligence is natural and allows him to be party to much that would otherwise be unknown to him.
The book is set in the rebellion against the decision of the South African State President, Louis Botha and his Minister of Defence, Jan Smuts, later Field Marshall under Churchill, to side with the British Empire in its struggle with the Kaiser. It follows the early part of that drama through the eyes of Koos Jacobs as an intelligence officer involved in tracking down the rebel groups and reflects the confusion and sometimes comic situations that were part of what came to be called The Five Shilling Rebellion after one of the leaders complained that an ‘English’ magistrate had fined him five shillings for chastising his own servant.
Historically, what happened was important for the Royal Navy as the German wireless station at Windhoek was broadcasting news of ship movements around the Cape to Berlin. Churchill asked South Africa to help and the fat was in the fire.
In 1914, as war is declared, Koos Jacobs, a young coloured man, rebels against his brother being beaten by a farmer and they go on the run. When the Army mistakes Koos for white, he rebels against the idea of officers being chosen by the colour of their skin and doesn’t correct them. As an officer, he rebels against tactics more suited to Waterloo than machine guns and finds himself in Intelligence under captain Phoxx, scratching in latrines for discarded office memos. Phoxx sends him to infiltrate the organisation of extremist Afrikaners who hope to use the war to throw the ‘English’ out of South Africa and he rebels against their embryonic ideas of Apartheid. When the guns start, he rebels against the idea that the coloured grooms must accept being fired on but forbidden from firing back. There is a price to be paid for rebellion, however, and death dogs his footsteps from battle to the shadows of espionage. Who will pay? Will he be quietly murdered to conceal the army’s mistake over his skin colour? Will it be the happiness of the white girl who fell in love with him when he saved her from harassment?