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?

The books I picked & why

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

By J. H. Twells, Jr.,

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

Why 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.  

Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War

By Tammy M. Proctor,

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

Why 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.

I Was a Spy!

By Marthe McKenna,

Book cover of I Was a Spy!

Why 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.

The Escaping Club

By A.J. Evans,

Book cover of The Escaping Club

Why 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.

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

By Henry Landau,

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

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in espionage, World War 1, and World War 2?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about espionage, World War 1, and World War 2.

Espionage Explore 86 books about espionage
World War 1 Explore 407 books about World War 1
World War 2 Explore 886 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel, Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, and The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 if you like this list.