Discover more from Word & Song by Anthony Esolen
"Men of Harlech"
Welsh Battle Song
When I was a child in school — and I know that some of our readers had the same experience, and perhaps some of our younger readers who were homeschooled had it, even more recently — we learned a number of patriotic songs which were generally known well enough for folks to sing along with those at appropriate times and places. Among these were, of coures, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America (“My Country, ‘tis of Thee”), and songs associated with the various branches of the military. My father had served in the Navy, so I particularly liked singing “Anchors Aweigh,” but I can still belt out the USAF song, “Off We Go, into the Wild Blue Yonder,” the Army’s “Caissons Song,” and the Marines’ Hymn (“From the Halls of Montezuma”). These military songs were universally rousing, cheerful, and confident. They reminded me of a hymn which we sang regularly in the Methodist church of my youth, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” This hymn and such military songs as these have fallen out of favor in our times; they are considered too martial. But their purpose is hearten us and show us how to meet head-on and with courage whatever battles we are called upon to fight.
So in this high-testosterone week at Word & Song, I was looking for a song among songs written to inspire men in battle. The one I chose I’ve heard many times, and it’s not at all an American tune, “Men of Harlech.” Sometimes a Song leads me down the rabbit hole of endless stories mixed in with other stories. And I dearly learning more about songs I love. But this week I ran across a story which determined me on choosing this particular song. Some of you no doubt have heard this story before, but I had not. Or if I had heard it, I’d heard only a small part of the story mixed in among all the many stories of courage which came out of the September 11th tragedy. So what has “Men of Harlech” to do with our song?
Well, the story begins in Cornwall, England, with the birth of Cyril Richard Rescorla at the start of World War II. As a child young Rick was fascinated by the American soldiers he was surrounded by in his home-town of Hayle, Cornwall, which served as a base for a regiment who were there in 1943 preparing for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This early experience with military men on a mission was formative for Rick — a boy being raised by his mother and her parents, with no father or brother. Of course he was too young to serve in the second World War, but in the 1950’s at the tender age of 17 he enlisted in the British Army and trained as a paratrooper, serving out his enlistment in Cypress. Shortly after his enlistment was up, Rick emigrated to the United States, enlisted in the US Army and was sent off to Vietnam, where he served as a platoon leader and rose to the rank of colonel, earning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
After his military service in Vietnam, Rick Rescorla, by then a US citizen, used his G.I. benefits to earn his B.A. and M.A. in English, and followed this up with a law degree. He taught law at for three years at the U. of South Carolina, but ultimately chose to put his experience in the military and in law and law enforcement to use as a corporate security specialist with Morgan Stanley, at their NY headquarters, housed over 22 floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Rick Rescorla was perhaps more of a security expert than Morgan Stanley had bargained for, because he was not a man to rest on his laurels in a cushy job handling minor matters for a big company. Almost immediately he began to assess the potential for terrorist attacks at the Trade Center, inspired by concern over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, enroute to New York. Rescorla asked his friend, Daniel Hill, who was trained in counterterrorism, to visit the Towers to evaluate the risk of a bombing attack there. Mr. Hill’s evaluation was prescient, to say the least. He identified a weak beam in the basement of the buildings as an ideal spot for targeting by a bomb-filled truck. Rescorla reported these findings to both Morgan Stanley and to the N.Y. Port Authority to no avail. No one took his warnings seriously. But in 1993 when exactly what Daniel Hill feared was possible actually happened, the two men were called upon to help discover the mastermind of the plot. This they did, but in the meantime Rescorla remained concerned because Daniel Hill had also told him that the Towers were an obvious target for terrorism by a deliberate airplane crash.
Rescorla tried to persuade Morgan Stanley officials to move their business to a safer building in nearby New Jersey, again to no avail. So for the following seven years, much to the annoyance of company executives, he orchestrated and conducted surprise evacuation drills for Morgan Stanley at least once every three months, marching all of the company’s employees to the safest stairwell, teaching them how to go down two by two quickly and efficiently to reach the exit. Rick was determined on being ready in case of an attack, and he wanted no chaos in the event of one, only to get the people he was hired to protect to safety.
Rick Rescorla, at age 62, was sitting in his office on the 44th floor of the South Tower when he saw the first plane hit the North Tower. A message went out from the Port Authority instructing everyone to stay in place. Rescorla immediately assessed the situation and put his evacuation plan into effect. During the evacuation, which took nearly an hour, Rick sang encouraging battle songs to the workers, including a Cornish version of “Men of Harlech.” Of the 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees from those 22 floors of the World Trade Center that day, all but thirteen survived. And the thirteen dead included Rick Rescorla and his team of three other security workers who, after safely evacuating the Morgan Stanley employees, went back into the building to save as many others as they could.
Here is the Cornish version of “Men of Harlech” which Rick Rescorla sang as he led the Morgan Stanley employees to safety on 9/11:
Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming; Can't you see their spearpoints gleaming? See their warriors' pennants streaming To this battlefield. Men of Cornwall stand ye steady; It cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready; Stand and never yield!
And here is “Men of Harlech” sung by Bryn Terfel, accompanied by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra and the combined Black Mountain and Risca Choirs.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.