After winning a victory at Belmont (23 November), Lord Methuen continued his advance north along the railway line towards Kimberley. Late on 24 November his advance guard was fired on by Boers located on kopjes to the east of the railway line. His scouts reported that the hills were held by around 400 Boers. Methuen decided to use his Naval Brigade to lead the attack on this obstacle.
The British intelligence was badly at fault. On the hills at Rooilaagte there were actually around 2,000 Boers. De la Rey with his contingent from the Transvaal had managed to convince Prinsloo, the defeated commander at Belmont, to join him. With him were the Winburg, Bloemfontein, Jacobsdal, Hoopstad and Fauriesmith commandos. They had a strong position. The hills formed a line two miles long, apparently easily defendable.
The battle has three names – Graspan, Enslin or Rooilaagte – after the three small communities close to the battlefield. Graspan and Enslin are both on the railway line, while Rooilaagte was just north of the main Boer positions.
The Naval Brigade was not as prepared for modern warfare as the army. While the soldiers had learnt to spread out, and their officers to be as inconspicuous as possible, at Rooilaagte the Marines would advance in relatively close formation (four feet between in man, compared to eight for the soldiers), with their officers leading the way, swords in hand. The Marine contingent lost almost every officer during the battle.
Meuthen selected the Boer left (eastern flank) as the point of attack. The 190 marines and 55 sailors of the Naval Brigade were supported by a company of the North Lancashire regiment, bring the total number of men in the first wave to 330. The Yorkshire Light Infantry followed close behind. They advanced to within 600 yards of the base of the hill before the Boers opened fire. As well as coming under fire from the top of the hill, the advancing British were also exposed to a fire from their left, where a number of Boers had been forced off the hilltop by artillery fire. This level fire proved to be very effective. The Boers modern Mauser rifles had a flat trajectory, which proved to be more effective on level ground than when fired from above. De la Rey would learn from this experience at Rooilaagte, and base his plans at the Modder River and Magersfontein on it.
At Rooilaagte the British once again proved that the steep sided kopjes were not great defensive positions. Once they reached the base of the hills, the survivors of the advance were able to take shelter, and then slowly advance up the side of the hill in a series of short dashes. When they finally reached the top, the Boers had gone, retreating before they could be caught. With the high ground at the east of their position taken, the Boer line was exposed, and a general retreat followed. Once again, Methuen did not have enough cavalry to pursue properly, and the bulk of the Boer forces escaped.
Prinsloo was the main Boer casualty. After the battle his men lost confidence in his ability, and he was replaced by Piet Cronjé. De la Rey remained as his advisor, a relationship that would cause much tension. Boer losses at Rooilaagte were low – 21 bodies were found by the British. British losses were much higher. The Naval Brigade suffered especially badly – the Marines lost 11 dead and 73 wounded, 44% of their strength. Total British losses came to 283 men. Once again the determination of the British troops had won Methuen a battle. He was now convinced that the only real barrier between him and the successful relieve of Kimberly would be the hills at Magersfontein. On 28 November he would get a very nasty surprise at the Modder River.