The best books about (or by) women spies of the First World War

Who am I?

As an Assistant United States Attorney, I was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team, which involved an FBI sting operation targeting corrupt congressmen (the basis for the movie “American Hustle”). Using undercover techniques and video surveillance, ABSCAM convicted six U.S. Congressmen and a U.S. Senator of bribery. Ever since I have been interested in deception in law enforcement and in espionage. That, together with an interest in the First World War, led me to this subject. 


I wrote...

The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring

By Gregory J. Wallance,

Book cover of The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring

What is my book about?

The Woman Who Fought an Empire tells the improbable but true odyssey of a bold young Jewish woman who became the daring leader of a Middle East spy ring that made the state of Israel possible. 

Though she only lived to be twenty-seven, Sarah Aaronsohn led a remarkable life. Sarah witnessed the atrocities of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and this convinced her that only the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine could save Palestinian Jews from a similar fate. Sarah joined Nili, a spy ring formed by her brother to aid the British, and became the organization’s leader. Operating behind enemy lines, she and her spies furnished vital information to British Intelligence in Cairo about the Turkish military forces. 
This is both an espionage thriller and a Joan of Arc tale.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of I Was a Spy!

Gregory J. Wallance Why did I love this book?

Nothing so well illustrates the emotional strain of spying as I Was a Spy! After the German invasion and occupation of Belgium in the First World War, the twenty-year-old Marthe McKenna was forced to work in a German army hospital. She was recruited by English intelligence to obtain military information from wounded German soldiers. She did her job so well that she found herself nursing German soldiers wounded in British airstrikes that used her intelligence. She was under such stress that when the German military awarded her their highest honor, the Iron Cross, for her nursing work, she barely avoided bursting out in laughter at the ceremony. After the war, she was decorated by England, France, and Belgium for her intelligence work and Winston Churchill wrote the foreword to this memoir.

By Marthe McKenna,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked I Was a Spy! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The Greatest War Story of All – Takes rank with All Quiet on the Western Front. She fulfilled in every respect the conditions which made the terrible profession of a spy dignified and honourable. Dwelling behind the German line within sound of cannon, she continually obtained and sent information of the highest importance to the British Intelligence Authorities. Her tale is a thrilling one … the main description of her life and intrigues and adventures is undoubtedly authentic. I was unable to stop reading it until 4 a.m.”

Winston Churchill 1932

With her medical studies cut short by the 1914…


Book cover of Femme Fatale: Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari

Gregory J. Wallance Why did I love this book?

The image of the female spy should have been Marthe McKenna and women spies like her.  Instead, because of a nude dancer from The Netherlands, the popular but unfair image of a spy in spy thrillers and Hollywood films is often that of a devious seductress. The nude dancer’s stage name was Mata Hari, who became the mistress to senior French officers and officials during the war. She may have pretended to spy for both sides to earn money, but revealed no significant secrets. Nonetheless in 1917, the French accused her of being a German spy who had used her seductive talents to obtain secrets that sent tens of thousands of French soldiers to their deaths. The evidence at her trial came nowhere close to proving the accusation, but the French needed a scapegoat for the mutiny and collapse of much of their army. She was convicted, executed by firing squad---and became a legend.

By Pat Shipman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Femme Fatale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mata Hari was the prototype of the beautiful but unscrupulous female agent who uses sexual allure to gain access to secrets, if she was indeed a spy. In 1917, the notorious dancer Mata Hari was arrested, tried, and executed for espionage. It was charged at her trial that the dark-eyed siren was responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 gallant French soldiers. Irrefutably, she had been the mistress of many senior Allied officers and government officials, even the French Minister of War: a point viewed as highly suspicious. Worse yet, she spoke several European languages fluently and travelled widely…


Book cover of I Spied for France

Gregory J. Wallance Why did I love this book?

Marthe Richer’s memoir is a bookend to Mata Hari’s story because her wartime French spy handler, Captain Georges Ladoux, was the man who had framed Mata Hari. A prostitute before the war, Richer was recruited by Ladoux to spy for France, which she did effectively. After the war, however, she claimed to have been a double agent who passed French secrets to a German official (no one really knows the truth). Richer observed that Mata Hari “was exactly what I was myself, however, I was decorated with the Legion d’honneur and Mata Hari was executed.” Later she pursued a political career and campaigned to close French brothels.

By Marthe Richer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Spied for France as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Gregory J. Wallance Why did I love this book?

Not many spies create nations, but Gertrude Bell, a multi-talented English archeologist, Arab scholar, travel writer, mountaineer, and intelligence agent, did just that. When fighting during the First World War spread to the Middle East, Bell joined British intelligence in Cairo where one of her colleagues was T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. After the British drove Turkish forces out of Baghdad in 1917, Bell joined the British colonial administration and later drew the boundaries of the country we know as Iraq from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. 

By Georgina Howell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gertrude Bell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A marvelous tale of an adventurous life of great historical import

She has been called the female Lawrence of Arabia, which, while not inaccurate, fails to give Gertrude Bell her due. She was at one time the most powerful woman in the British Empire: a nation builder, the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Born in 1868 into a world of privilege, Bell turned her back on Victorian society, choosing to read history at Oxford and going on to become an archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author (of Persian Pictures, The Desert and the Sown, and many other collections),…


Book cover of Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War

Gregory J. Wallance Why did I love this book?

For a wide-angle view of women spies in the First World War, none does a better job than Female Intelligence. The author discusses each of the women spies in my first four books, and many others as well, but places them in the context of the war, the status of women, and the dawn of modern espionage. As Proctor points out, before the war women spied mainly on an ad hoc basis but the manpower needs of the espionage bureaucracy created by the war gave women an opportunity to spy as part of large networks, and even in some instances to lead them--and they proved that women were as able as men at espionage, if not more so.

By Tammy M. Proctor,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Female Intelligence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the Germans invaded her small Belgian village in 1914, Marthe Cnockaert's home was burned and her family separated. After getting a job at a German hospital, and winning the Iron Cross for her service to the Reich, she was approached by a neighbor and invited to become an intelligence agent for the British. Not without trepidation, Cnockaert embarked on a career as a spy, providing information and engaging in sabotage before her capture and imprisonment in 1916. After the war, she was paid and decorated by a grateful British government for her service.
Cnockaert's is only one of the…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, France, and espionage?

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