The best books about World War One that go beyond the trenches: the hidden world of espionage

Who am I?

As an American novelist and Anglophile who enjoys writing about British history, I never planned to venture into world war fiction, but once a story led me there I was hooked. I love doing deep-dive research and learning about real men and women of the past who faced high stakes: life and death situations and having to make impossible decisions, both on the battlefield and in the hidden world of espionage. Their courage and resourcefulness inspire me, and I realize that even when we’re at our most vulnerable, we can still rise to become our best and bravest when it counts. 


I wrote...

High as the Heavens

By Kate Breslin,

Book cover of High as the Heavens

What is my book about?

A British nurse in WWI German-occupied Brussels, Evelyn Marche spends her days at the hospital and her nights working at a café... or so it seems. Eve's most carefully guarded secret is that she also spends her nights carrying out dangerous missions as a spy for a Belgian resistance group.

When a plane crashes as she's en route to a rendezvous, Eve is the first to reach the downed plane and is shocked to recognize the badly injured pilot as British RFC Captain Simon Forrester. She risks her life to conceal him from the Germans, but as the secrets between them grow and the danger mounts, can they still hope to make it out of Belgium alive?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In the Prison City: Brussels, 1914-1918: A Personal Narrative

Kate Breslin Why did I love this book?

Whenever I research for a novel, I love discovering those little-known nuggets of history. This 1918 action memoir is chocked full of them, revealing life in enemy-occupied Brussels during WWI. I was immediately drawn into this world and imagined the Belgian people’s shock and fear at the rumbling wheels of mitrailleuse guns and thundering horse’s hooves that announced the German army rolling into town. I sympathized with their hardships in being prisoners in their own city and I cheered them as they began to retaliate against their oppressors in subtle and sometimes humorous ways. Their fighting spirit became my inspiration for the story setting of my book.  

By J. H. Twells, Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Prison City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1919.

Personal narrative.

World War I.


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

Kate Breslin Why did I love this book?

I’d always imagined the femme fatale, Mata Hari, as the female spy of WWI, but in this well-researched book by Tammy Proctor, I was fascinated to learn there were quite a few women agents in the Great War. Proper ladies, in long dress skirts or nurses’ uniforms, each playing her part in a dangerous game of subterfuge against the enemy to help the Allies win. They knew the risks, yet were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they saw as the greater good; and it was these women who inspired me to create the heroine in my book, Evelyn Marche. Her bravery and daring in the novel are a tribute to them.

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…


Book cover of I Was a Spy!

Kate Breslin Why did I love this book?

Talk about a real-life action heroine! I grew up loving stories of intrigue and suspense, and Marthe McKenna’s 1932 memoir is like reading a thriller! As a young woman in German-occupied Belgium during WWI, she worked for the Resistance right under the enemy’s nose. I felt her fear as she witnessed brutality or took outlandish risks, and her exploits were incredibly brave for a woman of her time. I was in awe to read the book’s foreword by Sir Winston Churchill himself, lauding Marthe’s extraordinary courage and ingenuity during her ordeal. She taught me that we can all do more than we ever imagined if it means our survival, and her story inspired the high stakes I created in my novel.

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 The Escaping Club

Kate Breslin Why did I love this book?

I was fascinated by A.J. Evans’s 1922 memoir, relating his experiences as a WWI Royal Flying Corps pilot working for Army Intelligence before his plane went down and he was captured by the enemy. His words illuminated for me the hardships he faced as a POW, and all of the energy and genius he put into planning his numerous escape attempts – and nearly succeeded. With each failed attempt, the enemy moved him to a different camp, until finally he did gain his freedom in an incredible feat of human strength. Evans’s story was as valuable as it was entertaining and offered me a personal look at his life behind the barbed wire.

By A.J. Evans,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Escaping Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of literature attempts to compile many of the classic works that have stood the test of time and offer them at a reduced, affordable price, in an attractive volume so that everyone can enjoy them.


Book cover of The Spy Net: The Greatest Intelligence Operations of the First World War

Kate Breslin Why did I love this book?

Henry Landau’s story is a favorite because it visualized for me the brilliance of WWI espionage. During the war, Landau worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service in neutral Holland and collaborated with the resistance group La Dame Blanche or “The White Lady” in occupied Belgium, who covertly provided him with intelligence to aid the Allies against Germany. They created innocuous “grocery lists” – a code for how many German troops, horses, and artillery were sighted at Belgium’s train stations, and “letterboxes” used to pass intel so as to safeguard each cell of agents from capture. I was thrilled to discover this “White Lady” network of mostly noncombatants—women and children—whose ingenuity in surveillance was well before its time.

By Henry Landau,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spy Net as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Henry Landau was a young South African serving with the British Army when he was recruited into the British secret service, the organisation we now know as MI6, which needed a Dutch speaker to run its agent networks in Belgium. Talent-spotted by one of the secret service's secretaries on a dinner date, Landau was summoned to the service's headquarters in Whitehall Court to meet Mansfield Cumming, the legendary 'Chief' of the service and the original 'C'.Cumming, who had a wooden leg and tested the character of his young recruits by plunging a paper knife into it, sent Landau to Rotterdam,…


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Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

New book alert!

What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

Laurie spoon-feeds orphans in Ethiopia, performs 108 bows at a Buddhist mountain temple, walks shelter dogs in Peru, milks goats in Fuerteventura, and gets lost in Mexico, all the while navigating dating at midlife.

After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


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Interested in espionage, spies, and World War 1?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about espionage, spies, and World War 1.

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