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

Gregory J. Wallance Author Of The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring
By Gregory J. Wallance

The Books I Picked & Why

I Was a Spy!

By Marthe McKenna

I Was a Spy!

Why 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.


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

By Pat Shipman

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

Why 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.


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I Spied for France

By Marthe Richer

I Spied for France

Why 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.


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Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

By Georgina Howell

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Why 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. 


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Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War

By Tammy M. Proctor

Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War

Why 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.


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